The Times West Virginian

Business

June 30, 2013

Free emergency alarm offer among scams aimed at consumers

FAIRMONT — Being cautious and informed will keep consumers from becoming victims of deceptive business practices and scams, such as the recent free emergency alarm system offer.

The Better Business Bureau of Canton Regional and Greater West Virginia provides educational kits and information to both consumers and businesses on a variety of different scams, like the newest one that has been circulating.

Amanda Tietze, vice president of public relations and vice president of the West Virginia division, explained that the Better Business Bureau is a nationwide organization with approximately 113 divisions across the country. The local division services 52 of West Virginia’s 55 counties and 12 counties in Ohio, and has office locations in Charleston and Canton, Ohio.

The entity reports on businesses and charities, and helps consumers and businesses settle disputes. Companies can join the Better Business Bureau and get accreditation through the organization, Tietze said.

The agency rates businesses from A-plus to F based on their history with the Better Business Bureau, including the number of complaints filed against the company, how it has responded to complaints and other factors, she said.

Tietze explained that although seniors have been targeted, people of all ages have been receiving prerecorded telemarketing phone calls from a company that tells them they have won a free personal emergency alarm system.

The caller plays on the consumer’s fears by informing the person that the system is necessary to protect against break-ins and medical emergencies, she said. The company informs the individual that the value of the alarm system is several hundred dollars, but the consumer can get it for free.

The recipient of the phone call is then told to push a button to talk to a person on the line for verification. The representative is very hesitant to provide information to the customer about the company and gives extremely vague answers when questions are asked, Tietze said.

While the unit is free, the consumer is left unaware that there will be a monthly charge for monitoring, she said.

“They’re being very deceptive,” Tietze said.

The Better Business Bureau of Canton Regional and Greater West Virginia has known about this scam for a while, but the offer is just now moving into and affecting the local area, she said. The organization has been getting quite a few phone calls from concerned consumers in West Virginia.

“It’s actually been kind of making its way nationwide, so other Better Business Bureaus have been aware of this,” Tietze said.

There is variation on what this deceptive offer is called, such as “Senior Emergency Care,” “Senior Safety Alert,” “American Senior Benefits Program” or “Senior Safe Alert.” Also, the caller is able to make it appear like he or she is calling from a local number when they’re really not, she said.

“The calls do appear to be local when they come through to your phone, but that can be misrepresented,” Tietze said. “They can actually spoof local phone numbers.”

She urged consumers to not panic if they get one of these calls. If a person has gone this long without having an alarm system, why should they get one now?

“We always recommend to consumers to thoroughly do their homework before they make any purchasing decisions,” Tietze said. “Don’t make an instantaneous decision.”

She suggested that people contact the Better Business Bureau to check on a company or report a problem, or do their own online research on the particular product or business. If someone is promising something for free, typically it’s not really 100 percent free and strings are attached.

Sometimes companies will claim to have an endorsement from a well-known organization in order to ease consumers’ minds and make them think the product is something safe that they should purchase. But they’re usually not actually endorsed by the group and will often list the name slightly wrong, such as mentioning the American Diabetes Association incorrectly as the American Diabetic Association, Tietze said.

She said consumers need to pay close attention to these small details.

“It’s those little things that can really make a difference and really matter,” Tietze said.

“Any time anybody receives a call that they think is suspicious or something in the mail that they’re not really sure if it’s legitimate, please contact the Better Business Bureau. A lot of times, we are aware of these things already because we have so many offices nationwide.”

If the Better Business Bureau doesn’t know, it will launch an investigation and tell the consumer whether they should stay away from the offer or not. Because of consumers, the organization is able to determine if a particular scam is rotating in a certain area and then make people aware of that activity, Tietze said.

The Consumer Protection Division of West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s Office hasn’t been contacted by consumers about the free emergency alarm system offer yet, said Beth Ryan, communications director.

However, the office regularly gets complaints about offers for free medical alert devices, she said. Companies will call people and try to obtain their sensitive data, like bank account and Social Security numbers and birth date, in order to verify the person’s identity.

Ryan offered some warning signs for how consumers can tell if an offer is a scam. For instance, people should always be concerned and cautious when they get an unsolicited phone call asking for personal information.

“Any time somebody offers you something for free and tries to charge you for it later, either through a related service or to verify something, that’s another big red flag,” she said.

If a person claims to be a bank representative, the consumer should hang up and find the phone number for the bank on their own — don’t ask the caller. The consumer should call their financial institution directly to see if it is really trying to get information, Ryan said.

She said people need to be weary and do their homework, rather than just accepting somebody’s word.

For more information, contact the Better Business Bureau at 1-866-228-1820 or visit www.cantonbbb.org, or call the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office at 1-800-368-8808 or go online to www.wvago.gov.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.

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