Feb. 23, 2009 -- As you know, every few weeks I answer questions from you, my readers. This week's crop of questions is particularly insightful and helpful to others. Thanks for helping me tap into the consumer pulse -- and keep them coming.
Question: I have been talking to this guy for several months. We've talked on the phone, sent e-mails back and forth, IM all the time. He says he is in love with me and wants us to get married. I, unfortunately, have fallen deeply in love with him. He supposedly lives in IL and went to the UK for business in early September.
His daughter got sick and needed an operation which he needed to pay for in advance. He also said he was hit by a car while riding a bike and broke his leg. He is still there and asked me to send him some money for an invoice and his and his daughter's plane tickets. I sent it to him by Money Gram. He said he got robbed as soon as he left the place.
I am sure now that I got scammed because he keeps asking me for more money, which I don't have (He has gotten all of what I have and then some.) My question to you is, is there a place I can go to check his name to see if he is one of the scammers from Nigeria or Ghana, etc.?
-- P, Front Royal, Va.
Answer: Yes, I'm sorry to say you were scammed. And the scam stings even more since there is a personal element to it. This is often called the "sweetheart scam" and it has been around for years but went global with the advent of the Internet.
You won't be able to track the con man using his name, because it was probably a fake. For that matter, if he sent you a photo, it was probably a picture of somebody else. Often, these crooks just copy photos -- mainly of very attractive models -- off of the Internet. So you can't check his validity, but you can report his crime. Contact the United States Secret Service, the agency that investigates financial crimes.
Question: Someone -- from the language use, probably Nigerian -- is contacting folks through Craigslist, ostensibly on our behalf. His scam is to get people to pay for software that they will need for work-at-home billing for our company. Fortunately, most folks have been calling to find out if it is real or not. You might want to warn about offers to work from home for a particular company. Folks should make sure it is a real company and speak to the employment department at that company by looking up the phone number and placing the call themselves.
-- JJ, Fairport, N.Y.
Answer: Thanks for the heads up. You're right, scam artists often take steps to make their ploys seem more legitimate, in this case by naming a real company in their come-ons.
Question: There is a company doing business on the Internet doing the classic "bait and switch." They advertise products (cameras, etc.) at very cheap prices. When you order some, you either get a message to call to confirm the order or they call you.
When you talk to the salesperson, you get a high-pressure, misleading pitch for grossly overpriced products they say you need to make your purchase work properly. If you do not bite, the product is suddenly "out of stock" and your purchase canceled. The company has or is using several names. A check on Google revealed hundreds of accounts of the same scam I had last week.
-- NT, Lebanon, Tenn.
Answer: More good detective work by my readers. Before buying anything on the Internet, take two steps: 1) Google the name of the company (put it in quotes) and the word "scam" and see if you get a lot of hits. 2) Go to www.bbb.org and check the company's reputation with the Better Business Bureau. If you still feel uncertain, skip it and make your purchase from a known retailer that also has brick-and-mortar storefronts where you can go to complain, if needed.
Question: My elderly husband is nine years older than me, and has had serious health problems in the recent past. He has a major credit card in his name only. Just one card. He sometimes gives me the card to use for grocery shopping, etc., and I always sign his name on the receipt at the store. In the event something happens to him, will I be held responsible for the balance on the card?
-- RT, Desoto, Texas
Answer: This is one of those times when ethics and law don't quite match up. As long as your own name is not on your husband's credit card, you are not responsible for paying it off if he dies. But if you are enjoying the benefit of making purchases on that card, then you will have to grapple with your own morals as to what sense of responsibility you feel to pay (at least part of) the debt.
Question: I saw a Web posting about "selling" a home using essay contests, raffles and other means of transferring a house to a new owner via a contest of some kind. I need to know, do these work? Are they legal? I want to try a contest to help a friend move a property in Northern California that has not sold in two years; I'd like to know if this is a legitimate way to go.
-- SB, Willits, Calif.
Answer: Contests and raffles can be a legitimate way to move a property, but you need to check with a real estate attorney because the details vary from state to state. Often a charity must be involved. But bear in mind, that holding a contest to dispose of a property isn't necessarily profitable. Good Morning America recently did a story about a family that decided to raffle their house off for the benefit of a charity. The written agreement was that the family got a certain percentage of the proceeds. They lost money on the deal. I applaud you for thinking creatively. Here's a simpler idea for successfully selling a property. Lower the price. In real estate, it's all about price. Period.
Question: You said in an article that credit card companies will lower my credit score if I get them to forgive some of the $15,000 of credit card debt that I have. Do you know by how much? My current average score is 780. I live in Michigan if that makes a difference.
-- IE, Dexter, Mich.
Answer: Let's straighten one thing out. Credit card companies do not score you or have the power to change your score. They simply report your payment record to the big three credit bureaus, which then use credit scoring statistical models (like the famous FICO score developed by Fair Isaac) to analyze a bunch of factors, including that payment history the credit card company reported to them.
Nobody can tell you exactly how much your score will drop by negotiating away part of your credit card debt, because scoring models are closely guarded secrets. But it will certainly be a substantial hit because not paying a debt is a big deal. I would hate to see you hurt that great score, unless you have no other options. One thing you can do is go to Fair Isaac's Web site. When you order your credit score there, Fair Isaac has a tool that lets you play around with how different moves would impact your score. It is not very precise, but it will give you some idea.