CONSUMER ALERT: Wash. officials warn of consumer rip-offs by mudslide charity scams

OLYMPIA — As donors consider contributing to relief efforts for the Snohomish County mudslide tragedy, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Secretary of State Kim Wyman are urging consumers to be on guard against scam artists who try to take advantage of the situation.

The officials joined forces with the Better Business Bureau in reminding consumers that rip-off artists follow news coverage of natural disasters like this one and swoop in under the guise of helping victims, but end up victimizing the well-intended donors.

“All of us in Washington and around the country have deep sympathy for the victims and their loved ones and friends at this tragic time,” Ferguson said.

“It is a natural instinct to want to provide assistance right away, but Secretary Wyman, the BBB and I advise potential donors to exercise caution and make sure their hard-earned dollars go for the purpose intended, not to line the pockets of scam-artists.”

Wyman added: “Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this horrific mudslide.  So much was lost by so many. I’m heartened that many Washingtonians have a strong impulse to be a part of the relief effort, at least financially, and to help the victims of this tragedy. I support that, obviously.

“But as the Attorney General and I continue to emphasize in times like these, sadly there always seem to be rip-off artists who take advantage of people. It is shameful, but some so-called charities take advantage of our generous nature.  I want people to donate to charities they know and trust, if that’s their desire, and I want no one’s money used to simply line some con-artist’s pocket.”

BBB joined in the consumer alert.

“We are saddened at the loss of life and devastation caused by the mudslides in Oso,” said Tyler Andrew, CEO of Better Business Bureau, serving Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington. “We know helping those in need is a top priority, but people must be proactive and careful to ensure that gifts are effectively used for making a difference in the community.”

The BBB, Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division and the Secretary of State’s charities program offered these tips for prudent gift-giving:

•    Be suspicious of solicitors requesting immediate donations. Don’t rush decisions and consider contributing at give.org, a website run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
•    Make sure that charities are qualified to provide the type of disaster relief that is necessary.
•    Avoid cash donations. Write a check directly to the charity, not the fundraiser.
•    Never give out credit card numbers over the phone.
•    Be wary of “new” charities with unverifiable background information.
•    Watch out for solicitations from fake “victim” or memorial social media accounts.
•    Don’t be fooled by a name. Be watchful of charities that use sympathetic sounding names or names similar to well-known legitimate charities.

The Better Business Bureau, the Washington Attorney General and Secretary of State advise consumers to contact potential charities directly. For more information on finding charities, visit BBB’s charity review or theSOS charity lookup. Consumers can also visit the SOS web site for tips on giving wisely.

Vancouver coin company accused of cashing in without delivering

More than two dozen people have contacted Better Business Bureau to complain about Blue Moon Coins out of Vancouver, Wash., after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company, which sells wholesale precious metals and coins, has earned an “F” rating with Better Business Bureau serving Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington after failing to respond to six complaints.

Customers allege that after placing orders, the products do not arrive; the company has racked up 25 complaints within the last three years including 19 serious ones. The Washington State Attorney General’s Office says it has 16 complaints against the business from 2013 to 2014.

One customer says he lost $168,000 after placing an order with Blue Moon Coins in September 2013. After months of attempted contact, the man tells BBB that he still has not been able to reach the company or receive a refund.

A Washington State customer tells BBB that he purchased $6,000 in merchandise from Blue Moon Coins in early January, but when trying to cancel the order, he claims the company never responded. He now wants to warn other potential customers before they do business. “I want the public to know, so someone else doesn’t get caught in this trap,” he says. 

The BBB accreditation of Blue Moon Coins was revoked in December 2013 after the business failed to comply with the BBB Code of Business Practices.

BBB is concerned about the serious nature of these complaints and reminds consumers to properly research companies at bbb.org before making purchases.

Washington company that promised Web hits will reboot its sales tactics

The defendants sell Web site design, search-optimization and other Internet marketing services, along with providing e-commerce services to process online purchases. They promote their business through their Web sites and by telemarketing. Packages include an initial startup fee of $3,749.99 up to $9,749.99, plus a monthly fee of $39.99 to $99.99.

When the suit was filed, the Attorney General’s Office and Better Business Bureau had received nearly 90 complaints about the defendants, showing a pattern of recurring problems since at least 2005. Since then, the Attorney General’s Office has received an additional 70 complaints.

In April 2010, a King County Superior Court judge found the defendants in violation of the state’s telemarketing law. The settlement filed late Wednesday in King County Superior Court resolves the state’s remaining allegations of consumer protection law violations. The defendants agree to pay $250,000 to the Attorney General’s Office.

Under the settlement, the defendants must not:

·       Misrepresent their ability to significantly increase traffic to customer Web sites by achieving top search-engine rankings.

·       Fail to provide refunds or honor cancellation requests.

·       Claim to provide around-the-clock customer support, technical advice or consultations, unless available. The Attorney Generals Office believes the defendants misrepresented customer service representatives could be reached at any time.

·       Fail to register with the Department of Licensing as a commercial telephone solicitor.

·       Charge consumers credit cards without authorization.

·       Misrepresent their affiliation with other marketers.

 

Senior Counsel Paula Selis, an assistant attorney general who heads up the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit, led the investigation. She said the office expects to retain about $50,000 to reimburse the state’s legal expenses and distribute the remaining $200,000 as restitution for customers who filed complaints. Eligible customers will be contacted soon by mail and will receive full or partial refunds after the company has made all required payments to the state; that could be early 2012.

DOCUMENTS:

Complaint 

Order Granting Partial Summary Judgment 

Stipulated Judgment 

Top Ten Money-Saving Tips from Washington State Attorney General

1.     Bring ads with you to the store. Match the scanned price to the one that’s been advertised as you stand at the checkout and review your receipt for accuracy before leaving the store. If you find discrepancies, ask for the store’s pricing error policy.
 
2.     Treat gift cards like cash. Some stores won’t replace a lost or stolen gift card unless you provide proof of purchase. Make a note of the card number and keep it in a safe place. Keep receipts that show the purchase price and prove the card was activated. Register your card: Some retailers encourage gift card recipients to register their card through the store’s Web site, which enables them to check their balance online and receive a new card if they lose or misplace the original card.
 
3.     Don’t wait on rebates. Many go unclaimed because consumers lose the form, throw away proof of purchase codes or simply miss the deadline. In order to ensure that you receive your rebate, read the offer carefully before you buy; fill out paperwork promptly; enclose all required documentation; and make copies of all paperwork to be mailed, including forms, receipts, and UPC codes. You will need these materials if something goes wrong. If a rebate never arrives or comes late, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the Attorney General’s Officeand the local Better Business Bureau.
 
4.     Know the retailer’s return policy before you buy. Know whether a sale is final or if you or the recipient of your gift can obtain a refund, exchange unwanted merchandise or receive store credit for a future purchase. Return policies on sale and clearance items may be different than merchandise sold at full price.
 
5.     Keep receipts and packaging. When giving a gift, ask for gift receipt and enclose it with the present. Many retailers will only refund the lowest price at which the item was sold unless you can prove you paid more.
 
6.     Save warranties and service agreements. If you have printed copies of warranties and service agreements, you’ll have an easier time negotiating any refunds or exchanges should you have a problem or decide to return the product. Ask for warranties and service contracts in writing, save receipts from all of your purchases and bring them with you if you need a refund, exchange or repair.
 
7.     Be timely with returns. Most merchants only accept returns for a certain period of time. If you miss the deadline, you may no longer be able to get a refund or store credit.
 
8.     Check recall notices before buying children’s products. You can protect yourself by visiting www.recalls.gov before purchasing children’s products and by signing up to receive federal recall notices at www.cpsc.gov.

9.     Check video game ratings. “Much like the movie rating system, video game ratings empower parents to make age and content-appropriate purchases for their kids,” McKenna said. “This Christmas, when your kid makes a list, check it twice for video games – and make sure to review the rating on each game to know which ones are right for your kids.” All game-rating information as well as rating summaries can be found by searching for titles on the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) Web site (www.esrb.org). A mobile Web site at m.esrb.org enables parents to look up rating summaries  from the store aisle.
 
10. Do online shopping on secure Web sites. This helps ensure that personal information, such as your name, address and credit card number, is transmitted safely. Secure sites have addresses that begin with “https” and have a small padlock at the bottom of the page. Use a credit card rather than a debit card. If anything goes wrong, your checking account won’t be impacted. And credit card providers can reverse a payment if something goes wrong.

CONSUMER ALERT: Door-to-door magazine seller pretending to be a charity

Consumers have paid between $50 and $295 for subscriptions which, according to the company’s site, may take up to 120 days to arrive. Calls to the company’s phone number and letters sent to its Seattle address are ignored.

The company has ignored inquiries from the Secretary of State’s Office concerning its failure to register as a charity. It also hasn’t responded to the many complaints received by the Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau.

A 19-year-old man working for Fresh Start Opportunities was arrested in October after he allegedly broke into an Edmonds home, attacked the owner and stole her purse. The man was also a suspect in burglaries in Sammamish and Tumwater. Incidents of theft by Fresh Start Opportunities employees have also been reported in California.

Always check out a charity with the Secretary of State prior to making a donation. Ask solicitors for the need of the charity that they are representing, as well as the name of their employer. Request paperwork. Then search www.secstate.wa.gov/charities or call the office’s charities program at 1-800-332-4483. You can whether a charity is registered and how much of each dollar raised is used to help.

If you gave money to Fresh Start Opportunities, contact your local police department.