Expert Advice: Seven Tips to Help You Be a Better Consumer
Last updated March 6, 2023
It takes some extra effort to be a good consumer. You can’t get good prices on quality merchandise, find top-notch service providers, or protect yourself from fraud unless you do your homework—and that takes time. But it’s nothing compared to the time and effort it will take to deal with the problems that can result from making poor choices.
This is National Consumer Protection Week (March 5-11) and to celebrate Checkbook asked five experts to share some of their wisdom. Their advice will help you be a better consumer all year.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
Tip #1: Pay with a credit card whenever possible.
A credit card is one of the best ways to protect yourself against fraud and bad service. It can be a “consumer protection super weapon,” said Kevin Brasler, Checkbook’s executive editor.
When you use a credit card to pay for something, whether it’s a product or service, you’re protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. If that merchandise isn’t what you were promised or doesn’t arrive, or if a contractor or auto mechanic does shoddy work, you can protest the charge with your credit card company and it will investigate and determine whether your complaint is justified. If it decides in your favor, it will give you back your money, which is called a “chargeback.”
“We find that credit card companies overwhelmingly side on behalf of consumers in these disputes. So, by asking for these chargebacks, you can usually get resolution,” Brasler said. “You're not going to eliminate the entire headache of having to deal with the problem in the first place, but at least you have this recourse of getting your money back.”
Credit cards are not evil. If you can use yours responsibly and pay the bill in full each month, you’ll get the benefits and protections credit cards provide without paying any interest.
More from Checkbook:
Credit Cards Provide Strong Protections for Consumers
Why It’s Safer to Use a Credit Card, Not a Debit Card
Tip # 2: Be extremely careful if you use peer-to-peer payment apps.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) payment apps such as Zelle, Venmo, and CashApp are becoming the go-to way to pay for millions of people. These apps are convenient and easy to use. They’ve also become a favorite target for criminals because the money is transferred instantly, and transactions are nearly impossible to reverse.
P2P apps are designed for sending money between friends, such as when you want to split the cost of dinner. But as the apps themselves warn, they are not meant as a safe way to shop online or to send money to someone you don’t know; they lack the fraud protection provided by credit cards.
“You could send money and then you might not get the product or service that you think you've purchased, and you don't have much recourse,” said Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “So, it's really a dangerous tool to use when you are using it to pay a stranger.”
More from Checkbook: Complaints Against P2P Payment Apps Soar
Tip #3: Comparison shopping can save you a bundle.
There’s no way to tell if you’re getting a good price unless you shop around. That’s especially important when hiring a plumber, electrician, carpenter, or any other service provider.
Some people assume that a company that charges a lot will do the best work, but Checkbook’s research consistently finds that there’s no relationship between price and quality.
“You don't have to pay more to get better quality work,” Brasler said. “Really good companies that get really high ratings are just as likely to have low prices as companies that do lousy work. Shop around and make sure you're getting the right price, and more important, to make sure you’re dealing with a reputable company.”
With construction projects, such as siding and roofing work, and for repair work, take the time to compare warranties and guarantees, as well as price.
More from Checkbook: Top Shopping Tips
Tip #4: Review business relationships.
It’s not uncommon to start business relationships and forget them, assuming the terms and conditions in place when you signed up won’t change. Unless you check, you’ll never know. That’s why Edgar Dworsky, publisher of ConsumerWorld.org, recommends checking your cable and cellphone bills, bank accounts, and credit card accounts once every year or two.
“Maybe you're not getting the best rate, the best package, or the best price anymore,” Dworsky said. “In many cases, we’re talking about big bucks that could be saved either on a monthly or annual basis.”
With credit cards, check on perks that are important to you. Maybe you got a card when you were doing a lot of traveling, so you wanted to collect miles or hotel rewards, and it was worth paying a steep yearly fee. But maybe you don’t travel much anymore, so now a card that offers cash back makes more sense.
Some of the best cash-back rewards cards don’t have an annual fee, according to a survey by Bankrate.com.
For phone, internet, and TV service, is there a package or plan that provides more for less? Don’t expect the company to offer this voluntarily—you need to be proactive. Call or go to the store and ask: “How do I lower my monthly bill?” If you’ve done your homework, and know that a competitor is offering a better deal, you’ll have more bargaining power.
And don’t forget to cancel all the subscriptions you’ve signed up for, but no longer use.
“Many of these [subscriptions] just keep going and going,” Dworsky noted. “And if you don't stop them, you're going to keep getting charged, maybe a price that's too high.”
Tip #5: Slow down when you’re being rushed.
Con artists often use fear to get their victims to act without thinking. The pressure tactics they use can be so intense that by the time you realize you’re dealing with a crook, the money is gone. If someone is threatening you in some way, whether it’s with a lawsuit or being arrested—STOP—and get out of that situation.
Many victims say they felt something wasn’t right at the time they were being pressured by the fraudster, but they didn’t act on that feeling.
“Listen to your gut,” said Amy Nofziger with the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “It’s actually a chemical reaction from your brain trying to warn you that something is not right. So, if you have that gut feeling that something is not right, listen to it, and talk to someone that you trust about the situation.”
Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network at (877) 908-3360 to get help figuring out what’s really happening. You don’t have to be an AARP member to use this service.
More from AARP: Americans Lost Record-Breaking $8.8 Billion to Scams in 2022
In today’s fast-paced digital world, there may not be an “undo” button. If you submit your Social Security number to a website, and it’s run by scammers, you can’t pull it back. Similarly, if you click a link in a text message and provide the username and password for your bank or credit card account, you can’t undo that. You’re vulnerable to hacking until you change your log-in credentials.
More from Checkbook: Identity and Cyber Theft: How to Protect Yourself
Tip #6: If you’ve been scammed, report it.
Anyone can be taken by a fraudster. It has nothing to do with age, education, or financial situation. The professional criminals who make their living by scamming people know all the tricks.
If you get scammed, don’t feel embarrassed; instead, do something that might make a difference—report the fraud to your local police department, a local government consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission, Fraud.org, or the BBB Scam Tracker.
“While it might not help you get your money back in your particular case, what it does do is help investigators spot trends to build cases,” said John Breyault, who runs Fraud.org (sponsored by the National Consumers League).
Fraud.org confidentially shares complaints with more than 200 consumer and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and Canada.
“And believe it or not, these scammers do get caught and put behind bars. Not all the time, but if nobody reports it, they're never going to go to jail,” Breyault told Checkbook. “The regulators and the enforcement agencies that protect us need evidence, and that evidence usually starts with people like you and me filing complaints about this fraud.”
More from Fraud.org: Let’s all speak up about fraud
Tip #7. Get free copies of your credit reports at least once a year.
Identity theft often goes unreported because it’s not detected. You may not notice that a crook has applied for a credit card or opened a new bank account in your name. They could open a new mobile account and have the bill sent to them, instead of you.
But this information should show up on your credit reports. And the quicker you find it, the sooner you can reduce the harm that can be done by the fraudsters.
You need to get your credit reports from each of the big three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. These companies don’t share information with one another, so to be safe, you need to get all three reports. Do that by going to AnnualCreditReport.com. Don’t search online for “free credit reports”; you don’t know where you’ll end up. AnnualCreditReport.com was authorized by federal law and is safe to use.
When you get those reports, look for anything that isn’t right, such as accounts you didn’t open, names or addresses that aren’t yours, or a record of late payments you didn’t make. If you find anything that doesn’t make sense, investigate.
More Info: NerdWallet on how to read a credit report
If you freeze your credits at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, criminals won’t be able to open new financial accounts in your name. It’s free, and can be done online. It doesn’t take long—and it certainly takes less time than undoing the damage caused if you are victimized by identity theft. You should also do this for your dependent children.
More Info from Checkbook:
Identity Theft: Are You Protecting Your Kids?
Credit Score Myths vs. Reality: Don’t Let These Common Misconceptions Hold You Back
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.