USING THE SYSTEM AGAINST CONSUMER SCAMS
Lori Z. Bahnmueller
Michigan Credit Union League - Your Money Matters
The system works, it's true. In today's world we have many reasons to be cynical, but today I experienced how the system does work to protect the consumer.
It all began with a phone call informing me that I was a winner in a contest drawing. Presumably, I had filled out a card for a contest to win a grand prize of a Chevy Blazer or various other runner-up prizes (camcorder, TV, trip, Rolex watch, cash, etc.). The caller informed me that my entry was drawn and I was guaranteed to win at least two of the runner-up prizes. I couldn't recall ever filling out any card, but I was told that it was possible I (or someone else on my behalf) filled out the card 10 - 12 months earlier. The cards were placed at numerous spots, malls, home shows, etc... - basically wherever anyone stood in line.
To claim my prizes all I had to do was to come to New Horizons in Southfield. New Horizons is a discount travel agency. There would be a 90 minute session explaining the company and my spouse was asked to attend along with me. There was no obligation at all to buy anything. I was skeptical, but couldn't see the harm in talking further with the caller. She asked me a few questions such as - was I a U.S. citizen? Between the ages of 25 and 65? Employed? Income over $30,000? I did answer the questions since nothing related to any of my financial account numbers or credit union information.
The caller than arranged a time for me to come to New Horizons and gave me directions to the office. The date and time were set for only two days in advance. She explained that they want to move things as quickly as possible (after a 12 month wait?). She gave me her name and a toll-free phone number. She instructed me to call back before noon the next day to confirm my appointment, otherwise I would forfeit the prizes.
Something just wasn't right with this contest. On the one hand, I had won a legitimate contest with a local department store many years earlier from a drawing. I won a mattress. All I had to do was go to the store and select the mattress (and, of course, pay Uncle Sam a hefty tax for my good luck). In that case, I had remembered filling out the entry form and the drawing had happened within a week or two, not 12 months later. The department store never asked me a single question. They simply called and told me I had won. Why all the questions from New Horizons? If I was a winner, why should they care about my income or employment? If I'm a winner, I'm a winner.
The problem I had next was how do I figure out if this is a legitimate contest or not? I don't usually fill out entry forms for contests, but in a moment of boredom standing in line somewhere, maybe I had. Plus, I kind of hated to walk away from a camcorder, since that's on my Christmas list this year.
My first call was to the Better Business Bureau to ask about the company New Horizons. In order for them to search for a company, they need an address or a main phone number. I didn't have a street number, but they were able to use the toll-free number to identify the company. Unfortunately, their listing on the company was in the process of being updated. "Update" didn't mean anything negative or positive. It simply meant they were in the process of reviewing their information to make sure everything was accurate. I didn't leave it at that though. I explained to the person at the Better Business Bureau exactly why I was calling and about the contest. The person suggested I call the Consumer Protection Agency of the Attorney General's Office in Lansing and gave me the number.
The suggestion was an excellent one. When I called the Consumer Protection Agency, I explained the phone call and contest. No sooner did I finish my last sentence when the person immediately responded that 51 complaints were filed against New Horizons and no one ever received any prizes. It was a high pressure sales tactic they used to get people into the office to hear their sales pitch. The company gives people no time to think about their offer and puts a lot of pressure on them I was told the agency does have an attorney looking into the company and their contest. The person from the Consumer Protection Agency told me repeatedly that they recommend I did not get involved with this at all. Bingo, just what I wanted to know.
I still wondered about the questions the company asked me (employment, age, etc...) The agency explained that these were screening questions to make sure I could afford the company's services. It all made sense now. The 12 month wait was probably just New Horizons finally getting around to my card. Then, their immediate need to get me into the office to claim the prize was part of their high-pressure tactic.
In the end, I did come out the winner. I saved 90 minutes of my time plus an endless amount of frustration over a high pressure sales pitch. I was very pleased with how easy it was to uncover the scam. Only two phone calls and ten minutes of my time. The Consumer Protection Agency did exactly what its name says - it protected me. I was glad I called them first instead of ending up as another one of their complaints. I didn't even know that the agency was the one to call or that anyone would know about this contest at all. I did know enough to ask questions and keep asking them until I was satisfied with the answers.
I can't say whether or not I ever did fill out a entry card for the contest, but from, now on I will make it my personal policy not to enter any drawings. I'm glad to say the system does work when we use it.