Most consumers know how important it is to watch out for unscrupulous lenders and service providers, particularly when you’re already in a financial bind and more vulnerable than ever. Knowing exactly what to watch out for and how to tell who you can trust is a bit more challenging.
These five free resources will help you understand the risks, your rights, and how to protect yourself.
National Consumer Protection Week happens in March, but the resources offered in its honor are available all year round. At ncpw.gov, you’ll find information to help you understand and avoid pitfalls in a wide range of consumer protection areas, including banking, credit, identity theft, investing, shopping, automobiles, and more.
Unlike most of the reputable information sites in the consumer protection arena, NCPW is a cooperative effort among a large number of state and federal agencies and departments, as well as interested private organizations such as the American Association of Retired Persons and the Better Business Bureau. That diversity means a greater variety of materials, as well as links to find more help in your particular location or problem area.
Free Annual Credit Reports are guaranteed by federal law, and a powerful tool for protecting yourself. Most consumers think of credit report checks as a way to ensure that your identity hasn’t been stolen, but that’s just the beginning. Regularly checking your credit report will help ensure that your credit score, access to credit and interest rates aren’t impacted by things like old debt that should have dropped off your credit report, errors, or debt that’s been illegally resurrected after it was discharged in bankruptcy.
Many companies advertise free credit reports, but most are trying to sell you something—your “free” credit report comes with strings, or at least with a sales pitch. There’s just one official site where you can obtain free credit reports from all three major credit reporting agencies, and you’ll find it at www.annualcreditreport.com .
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regularly makes the news for investigating and suing shady organizations that take advantage of consumers. But, did you know that the CFPB also offers extensive consumer resources on its website at www.consumerfinance.gov?
The site offers information for students, the elderly, servicemembers, those considering a home purchase or struggling with mortgage debt and more. One particularly useful element of the site is the granular breakdown of common applications and disclosures, explaining technical terminology and showing consumer exactly what to look out for. This line-by-line explanation of a standard mortgage disclosure is just one example.
The Federal Trade Commission also offers a wealth of consumer tips and information on its website. One key offering is the FTC’s scam alerts. When you get that phone call that sounds just a little too good to be true or you’re being threatened with an IRS lawsuit even though you’re pretty sure that your tax filings are up to date and accurate, the scam alert page is a great starting point.
In April alone, the FTC has warned about active scams involving bogus debt collection, assistance with disability applications, opportunities to assist earthquake victims in Japan and Ecuador, and official-sounding calls about a phony email hack. You can read recent updates, browse scam alerts by topic, sign up for email alerts or report a scam.
Unfortunately, predatory financial offerings and fraudulent collection efforts are big business in the United States today. An educated consumer is a consumer who’s prepared to recognize the red flags and make good decisions about lenders and offers of assistance, and to recognize empty threats for what they are.
Whether you’re applying for a credit card, looking for a mortgage loan, facing foreclosure, getting suspicious collection calls or just preparing to purchase an automobile or make an investment, information gathering should be your first step. These resources provide a solid starting point for good financial decisions.