With Valentine's Day just around the corner, marketing pitches and eCards related to the holiday are sure to be coming to your email account, as scammers try to trick the unwary into passing along personal and financial information.
Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr. has advice for those who are going to doing some shopping for a special someone to keep them from getting their hearts -- or their wallets -- broken.
"One scheme involves an email indicating that the flowers you ordered for your sweetie won't be delivered unless you log in and re-enter your credit card number, so think before you act," Farrell said. "Even if you think a message like this is real, go directly to the florist's website or call them on the phone."
Along the same lines, be careful opening eCards. If you have very good antivirus software and are current with all security updates your computer is reasonably safe. Even then, don't open an eCard unless you know who sent it.
In addition, beware of any message telling you that you need to update your Flash player to view the eCard. Don't click on the link provided by the sender, since it may install spyware or other software that allows access to your computer and your data. Instead, go to www.get.adobe.com/flashplayer/ and download the update from there.
You should immediately delete suspicious or anonymous emails or e-cards, and never give out personal information in response to any email or e-card. Contact your local police and Federal Trade Commission if you believe you are a victim of a scam.
A romantic dinner is always a nice choice, as long as you pick a place that you're comfortable with in terms of food and expense.
"A busy holiday may not be the best time to try out an unfamiliar restaurant," Farrell said. "Keeping it relaxed may make for a more enjoyable evening out."
Of course, flowers are a traditional Valentine's gift, but they too have been used to trap the unsuspecting consumer. Don't choose just any florist that advertises at this busy time of year. Ask trusted neighbors, family and friends for names of quality local florists.
Avoid doing business with florists that don't list a street address with their phone number. When ordering, ask the florist to itemize the charges for you. There have been fly-by-night operations that set up shop at this time of year, collect lots of orders (and payments) and never deliver.
Two years ago, Chris of Lodi, NJ, wrote ConsumerAffairs.com, that he "ordered flowers (from 1800flowers) on 2/11 for delivery to my wife at her job on 2/14. I did not hear from her, so I called her. She said that 1 of her co-workers was supposed to get flowers, and they never showed. I didn't want to ruin the surprise, but I told her she was also supposed to get flowers. Turns out they both were ordered from 1-800-criminal. I tried to call--just get a recording that says: 'thank you, goodbye.'"
Because jewelry is one of the more expensive Valentine's Day purchases, shop around and compare quality, price and service. If you're not familiar with any jewelers, ask trusted friends or family members for recommendations.
"Don't fall for promises of huge discounts offered by some retailers," Farrell said. "Visit several stores to get a realistic range of prices, and before you buy, make sure you understand the seller's refund and return policy."
Have the jeweler write on the sales slip any special information about your purchase, such as the gemstone's weight, size, or grade.
ConsumerAffairs.com has received several complaints about Georgia-based Friedman's, the third largest jewelry retailer in the country:
• Joanne of Charlotte, NC says she purchased several pieces of jewelry along with the life-time warranty's on replacement and repairs. "I was in need of repairs and a diamond replacement and went to the store where I purchased the pieces from, only to find them closed. The phone has been disconnected as well. I am unable to find another store to do the repairs and honor the contracts."
• Clint of Birmingham, AL, tells ConsumerAffairs.com that he bought his fiance an engagement ring at a reasonable price. He says that since the company went bankrupt, "they won't stop hounding me about a monthly fee that is supposed to be for credit protection. I have since transferred my balance from them to a credit union and the account I had with them has a zero balance but they still keep charging me fees. I have told them to cancel the account and even sent a certified letter to them which they signed and sent back but they still won't close the account. I refuse to pay this balance since I don't have anything with them. Through this they have ruined my credit."
• Shirley of Brandon, FL writes that she purchased a one-carat ring and can't get service for the ring, "no insurance coverage information, and I can't make a payment online, or store, and I have to pay additional fees to use their service for payment via telephone. I have purchase jewelry from this company since 1988 and I am angry that I cannot get the service I paid for now plus late fees."
Online jewelers may offer lower prices, but you won't be able to inspect the items first-hand in order to gauge its quality and appeal. When online, be sure to read the fine print, because mounting and sizing could cost extra. Deal with only well-known, reputable online sellers, confirm all return policies, and keep printouts with details about the item, the transaction, and the refund and return policies.
If possible, pay for jewelry and other expensive items with a major credit card. It may give you recourse if problems arise later.
Many singles turn to online dating websites to find true love, but this has its risks. Scam artists often create fake profiles designed to match a certain kind of person whom they think will fall for their ploy. If you happen to be chosen by a scammer, at first it will seem that this new person you've met online is perfect for you in every way. So far, so good!
But as your relationship continues, the criminal slowly builds enough trust that you won't suspect them when they start to bilk you out of your money. Often, the first grab at your finances will come when it's time to finally meet. Your true love won't have enough money for the trip and you'll be asked to wire funds for a plane ticket. Or he or she becomes sick or has a relative or child that needs emergency medical attention.
"The money will be needed quickly and you won't have time to think about it," Farrell said. "You'll be told that time is of the essence' you may even be warned that if you don't help, someone might die."
Be careful of this tried and true scam. If you fall for it you may face financial loss along with heartache.