Staying safe from scams

It is of extreme importance to get absolutely everything in writing.

Check your credit-card statements online several times a month. (photo credit: TNS)
Check your credit-card statements online several times a month.
(photo credit: TNS)
A few weeks ago I was almost taken in by the latest con that is sweeping this country. I received a phone call from someone who claimed to be an employee at Microsoft and located in the States.
She had a Philippine accent, as do many hi-tech representatives abroad. “We have noticed that when you are online you are being bombarded with viruses,” she said. “I can help you with that – just let me connect up to your computer and I will get rid of them.”
At that point I hung up and called a computer-savvy friend who told me about the sting. In the meantime I learned that many people are taken in by this scam and open their computers to these frauds, even giving out their credit card numbers for purchase of a nonexistent lifelong anti-virus. Soon they learn, to their dismay, that personal information has been stolen from their computers. So beware.
A slightly older sting that has been making the rounds for the last year or so and targeting people who don’t speak Hebrew well, particularly golden agers, goes like this: “Hello, my name is X. I see from my list that the insurance on your washing machine (or dryer, or dishwasher, or refrigerator) has expired. I can help you with that – let’s sign you up for five years: we can cover every electric appliance in your house.”
One problem is your insurance may not have run out and you may not even have the appliance they are calling about. Also, since you know nothing about the company, why would you give out your credit-card number? The sweet-talking representative will often tell you their “insurance” covers every item in your kitchen, but neglect to mention that you aren’t covered for items that are over a certain age or for certain brands. The representative may also neglect to mention that you will pay for the visit each time a repairman comes to your home.
Studies have shown that it is often cheaper to buy a new washing machine, refrigerator etc. than to pay insurance. Also, it is probably cheaper just to hire someone reliable to fix what is fixable. Ask a relative/ neighbor/friend for a recommendation.
If you do sign up for insurance marketed by phone, insist that they fax or email their contract first. Will you be able to cancel it? What fee will they charge you for canceling? Often, the fee is more than the total sum you will be paying over three or five years. Consider this before giving out your credit-card number.
Believe me, the whole canceling process may be frustrating, long and expensive. Credit-card companies do not like to refund money to customers, and you are in big trouble if the company does not even exist.
Thanks to a new amendment to the Consumer Rights Act initiated by MK Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Union, our lives are about to become much easier. Called “Disconnect in a Click,” the amendment, which comes into effect in December, requires all companies to publish their contact information, including a specific email address for disconnection requests. This must be included on their receipts as well.
Consumers need only send a simple email with their relevant information in order to unsubscribe from services. Companies must cease the charges after three business days. If they do not, they can be fined by the government up to NIS 22,000 and you can take them to small claims court and receive up to NIS 10,000 in damages.
At the time you contracted for a monthly cellphone fee, you may have purchased equipment (phones, tablets, etc.) from the cellphone company. If you paid in one blow, you should have a receipt. But most consumers decide to pay in installments of 24 to 36 payments, to which, by the way, the companies add enormous sums in interest.
Should you decide to move to another company before you have finished paying for these items, you must continue to shell out for the equipment, but you do not have to continue paying for their service. So to those who are frustrated at finding out that they continue to be billed, note that it is generally for items other than the monthly service fee.
Helpful hints and consumer tips
Here are some helpful hints for managing your lives as Israeli consumers. First, remember that the Israeli customer is rarely right. Second, back up everything – and I mean everything – in writing. This includes the time and date that you made a phone call to a company and the name of the representative you spoke to.
Try to record important conversations, and if you return an item – router, modem, cable box, so-called free gifts – get that in writing. Here is what happened to someone who did not.
English-speaker Shlomo F. contracted with 012 to supply him with Internet and bought their router – or so he thought. When 012 was taken over by Partner, the Internet continued, until one day the router ceased to function. Shlomo took it to the Partner service center and was told that it was useless and that he should throw it away. The agent told him to go to a computer shop in the same building and buy another router, which he did.
But when he became unhappy with his Internet service, he changed to Bezeq. After he did so, Partner charged him for the router (the one he threw away). When challenged by Shlomo, Partner refused to believe that he had been told to throw away the router and would not return the fee.
It turned out that Shlomo’s monthly fee had included a NIS 10 service charge for use of the original router – which did not belong to him, as he had thought. He had not carefully read his monthly bill, as it was in Hebrew, which probably noted that he was paying a service fee and actually renting the router.
Shlomo did not know the name of the person who told him to throw the old router away. Although eventually Partner promised in writing to return the fee, it was only after a very long and tiring head-to-head confrontation with the company – and he is still waiting to see the money.
Again, it is of extreme importance to get absolutely everything in writing. Do not pay in cash, because if they refuse to give you a receipt (happens frequently with lots of excuses) you are not going to have anything to threaten with or to take to court. Do not be afraid to go to small claims court if you are in the right.
Regarding credit cards, I have suggested several times never to give your credit card information to someone who calls you on the phone to market an item or a service, no matter how terrific the offer seems. In fact, never give your credit card number to anyone who calls you on the phone.
But say you want to upgrade your phone, buy another phone, change your monthly plan, or move from one company to another, and you enter the company’s store to do so.
Countless people have contacted me after signing a contract in a shop (which they did not read or did not understand), and were afterwards told that the printer was broken, or were given some other excuse so that they couldn’t take the contract home to study. The representative may promise to send the contract – but even if it arrives, it does so after several months have gone by and you already have been unpleasantly surprised at the bills you have received.
When the consumer finally gets a contract, there is often a significant difference between what they were told and what they signed. Take a Hebrew speaker with you on any occasion when you might be signing a contract. Read it before you sign and don’t leave without a contract that says exactly what it is supposed to. The printer is broken? Put it in writing that you are canceling the contract – and get it signed.
If someone steals your credit card, or a nonexistent company gets hold of it, you can get money back but only for three months.
Check on any charges that are not familiar to you and contact the credit card company immediately.
Regarding those “free gifts,” fast-speaking, silky-tongued representatives who appreciate your business so much that they desperately want to give you something for nothing often thrust so-called gifts upon you. Remember – there are no free gifts.
Life isn’t like that, at least not in Israel. You will get charged for the “gift.” This will happen several months later, after you have used the “gift” or given it away. But if you do accept a “gift,” don’t walk out of the store unless you have a promise in writing that you will not pay for it. Check your credit card statements online several times a month to make sure this doesn’t occur.
More tips
If you wait for a repairman who was supposed to come within a two-hour window and he shows up after four hours or more, you are entitled to compensation of NIS 300. If he doesn’t come at all, you are entitled to NIS 600. You should be able to get this from the repair company; if they refuse, go to Small Claims Court.
These days, many people book flights and vacations on the Internet. However, there are advantages to doing so with a travel agent instead. If problem comes up with a flight or anything else that the agent took care of, that agent will either handle your demands for compensation in accordance with Israel’s consumer protection laws or will advise you in detail how to deal with them on your own. Or course, this holds true only if your flight/cruise etc. is booked with a company that has a representative in Israel.
The Consumer Protection Authority has expanded its hotline hours. Ask questions about consumer law or get help writing a complaint at (02) 539-6000.