Consumers Determined to "Take Charge" in Turbulent Economy - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather

Consumers Determined to "Take Charge" in Turbulent Economy

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Spokane, WA June 3, 2009- With skyrocketing costs on everything from food to utilities, families losing their homes, retirement accounts shrinking and millions of americans without a  job, it's no wonder that people are feeling swamped by the wake of the economic downturn.  To make matters worse, crooks and swindlers have emerged with a new crop of scams and schemes designed to take advantage of today's turbulent economy. 

These uncertain times have left people looking far-and-wide for answers to help them weather the financial storm.  Today, a capacity crowd of nearly 300 consumers turned to the experts for help at AARP's "Taking Charge in Tough Times" event in Spokane.

The event was the fourth in a series of public forums focused on protecting consumers amid the down economy.  Attendees heard from a wide variety of experts including Attorney General Rob McKenna, AARP, Microsoft, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, the Department of Financial Institutions, KCTS 9, the Federal Trade Commission, the Washington State Crime Prevention Association, the Better Business Bureau and the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission.  A number of timely topics were covered, including outsmarting investment fraud, staying safer online, guarding your identity, protecting your retirement savings, and spotting and stopping some of the latest scams that have emerged tied to today's tough economy.

"Factors like the mortgage crisis, unstable job market and Wall-Street woes are adding up to the perfect storm for Washington consumers - and the perfect opportunity for crooks and con-artists," said AARP State Director Doug Shadel.  "But rather than suggest we all just duck-and-cover, we're hoping to help consumers take charge of the situation by protecting their finances and by arming them with the tools they need to fight back against the crooks who hope to profit from today's economic turmoil."

"Whether it's foreclosure rescue scams, loan modification traps, bogus debt repair offers or work-at-home schemes - scam artists have emerged with a brand new arsenal of tricks focused on the struggling economy," said Attorney General Rob McKenna.  "We're helping protect consumers through laws and enforcement - but prevention has always been the most effective method to reduce fraud."

Amid the worst stock market decline since the Great Depression, consumer protection advocates have noted a steep increase in the number of investment related scams. "Americans have lost more than $2 trillion of their retirement nest eggs, and now they're desperate to get ready for retirement," said Lori Schock, Associate Director of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation. "Unfortunately, that creates the perfect opportunity for scam-artists to pitch their too-good-to-be-true and get-rich-quick schemes."

Mike Stevenson, Securities Division Director for the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), encourages people to carefully check out brokers and their products before making any investment decision. "By law, brokers and their products must be registered," says Stevenson. "If they're not registered, it could be a red flag."

Chuck Harwood, Regional Director for the Federal Trade Commission, warned attendees about a new web and email scam related to economic stimulus payments. According to Harwood, scammers are offering to help consumers qualify for a payment from President Obama's economic stimulus package. Many try to make the pitch look like it has come from a government agency to enhance its credibility. "The online hoax encourages you to click on links, open attached forms, or call a phony toll-free number," said Harwood. "Two things can happen - you'll find you have just entered into an agreement that may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to cancel, or your personal information will have landed squarely in the hands of an identity thief."

While scam artists employ a wide variety of tactics to make their pitch -- phone calls, door-to-door or direct mail -- consumers should also be on the lookout for online threats. Microsoft Audience Manager Tiffany Teichrow highlighted some tips and tools that are available to help protect online users' personal information. "There are some simple steps everyone who goes online should take to protect their computer and their personal information from online threats," she said. "These include using a firewall, running automatic software updates, using anti-virus protection and anti-spyware software."

In addition to learning how to better prepare and defend themselves from scams, attendees also learned of a wide range of programs and services available to help them make ends meet. Amanda Murdock, Education and Outreach Manager for the Utilities and Transportation Commission, presented information about home energy savings, weatherization, low-income telephone options and utility assistance for consumers. "The commission wants to ensure customers are receiving rates and services that are fairly priced, reliable, and safe," said Murdock. "Our consumer protection help line can assist with billing disputes, service complaints, disconnect notices and more."

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