published Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Biz Bulletin: Consumer resolutions worth keeping in 2014

By Jim Winsett

Q: I'm setting up some goals to work on this year, but I wanted to see if there are any I might be overlooking. Does the BBB have any tips to keep in mind as I go through 2014?

A: Every year, many people make New Year's resolutions that are broken by January 2nd. The primary reasons resolutions are broken is because they weren't well thought out, or they are made knowing it would be nearly impossible to keep them.

But some resolutions are worth making, especially if they can help us keep our identities safe, stay within budget, or avoid falling victim to scams. Everyone can benefit from setting a budget, researching businesses before buying, and learning to recognize the red flags of common scams.

Better Business Bureau's list of 10 resolutions might be formidable, but they can help anyone become a savvy consumer in the New Year.

1. Always check a business out before you buy. Getting recommendations from friends or reading reviews online can help you make choices, but if you take your research a step further, such as reading BBB Business Reviews, you might avoid headaches.

2. Be skeptical of "job offers" that promise easy money. With high unemployment and long job searches common, scammers are targeting people desperate to find jobs. Beware of any job offer, work-at-home scheme or business opportunity that promises big money for little work and no experience. Also beware of offers that require you to spend money for drug tests or for startup materials.

3. Always read the fine print -- especially with "free" trial offers. Thousands of consumers have complained after signing up for a "free" trial offer online that resulted in repeated charges to their credit or debit cards, sometimes amounting to hundreds of dollars every month. Read the terms and conditions of any "free" trial offer before handing over credit or debit card numbers.

4. Keep your computer safe. If you haven't already done so, install anti-virus software on your computer, and check regularly for software and operating system updates and patches. Don't open attachments or click on links in emails unless you can confirm the email came from someone you trust. Doing so could download a virus or malware to your computer.

5. Never wire money to someone you don't know. Many scams, such as advance fee loans or bogus sweepstakes notifications, require that the victim wire money back to the scammers. Scammers know that tracking money sent via MoneyGram or Western Union is extremely difficult. Once you've wired the money, it's nearly impossible to get it back.

6. Fight identity theft. Shred paper documents that include sensitive financial data and dispose of computers, cellphones and digital data safely. For example with old computers, be sure to either remove the hard drive or take the computer to a reputable disposal company.

7. Do not fall for high-pressure sales tactics. An offer that is good for "today only" is a potential red flag. Taking into account your needs and comparing prices, products, terms and guarantees, you can tell a bargain from a "too-good-to-be-true" scam.

8. Create a budget and stick to it. Setting a budget can help you stay afloat in 2014. Some not-for-profit credit counseling firms can help you analyze your income and monthly obligations for a nominal fee, especially if you need help paying off debts.

9. Be smart about home improvements. If you're hiring someone to make improvements or repairs to your home, get several bids from contractors you've checked out in advance. Get a written contract that includes start and completion dates for the work. Do not pay the full amount up front, and ask the contractor to give you a lien waiver after you are satisfied and have paid in full.

10. Get everything in writing. Don't just take a company's word for it. Get every verbal agreement in writing to limit miscommunication and misunderstandings between what you expect and what the business delivers.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau of Tennessee.

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