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7 On Your Side Frequently Asked Questions

Tuesday, June 17, 2014
AUTO PROBLEMS
Q. Can you give me advice on my auto related problem?

A. Unfortunately, we are unable to help with certain auto related issues. However, numerous resources exist for consumers experiencing problems with the auto industry. For help with your specific problem, please contact one of the following:

Repair Problems

Bureau of Automotive Repair
(800) 952-5210

Used Car Sales

Department of Motor Vehicles
(800) 777-0133 (or your local DMV investigations office listed in your phone book)

New Car Sales

New Motor Vehicle Board, Consumer Mediation Services Program
(916) 445-1888

Lemon Law

Department of Consumer Affairs
(800) 952-5210

Recalls

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(888) 327-4236

Insurance

California Department of Insurance
800) 927-4357

All Other Problems

Department of Consumer Affairs
(800) 952-5210
Better Business Bureau
Auto line (800) 955-5100

BUSINESS-TO-BUSINESS
Q. Can Seven On Your Side assist me if I am business owner with a complaint against a company I do business with?
A. Unfortunately, we are unable to help you with your problem. 7 On Your Side is strictly a service intended to help consumers resolve complaints against businesses, rather than business-to-business. However, we do suggest that you contact the Better Business Bureau in your area, as they will probably be a good resource for you. You can also contact the National Small Business Association, which has good resources for businesses, and its affiliate in California.

BUSINESS AND/OR PRODUCT QUESTIONS
Q. If I have a question about a business where should I go to see if they are legitimate?
A. To learn more about a local business contact the Better Business Bureau in your city or county. The phone number can be found in your phone book. To research the licensing and legal standing of a California business, or for general questions, contact the California Department of Consumer Affairs at (800) 952-5210.

Q. If I have I a question about a product where should I go for more information?
A. To learn more about requirements for product advertisements, contact the Federal Trade Commission at (877) 382-4357.

To access information about recalled products, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC can be reached at (800) 638-2772.

CELLPHONE TELEMARKETING CALLS
Q. I get telemarketing calls on my cell phone, what can I do to stop the calls?
A. Cell phone providers are not allowed to sell your phone number. However, it is true that you can (and should) add your cell phone number with the national Do Not Call Registry. It's easy and free, and will help
ensure that telemarketers don't even try calling your cell. You can get more information about this topic here.

Click here for more information on registering your phone numbers.

CHARITIES
Q. Where do I go to check on a charity before I make a donation?
A. You can check on a charity's identification through the California Attorney General's website, or GuideStar, or through the Better Business Bureau. These sites will also allow you to view the charity's 1099 tax form, which shows you how much the organization raises, how much they use for the actual charity, and how much their management team makes. This should help you make an informed decision about whether you want to make a donation.

COLLECTION AGENCIES
Q. I keep getting calls from a collection agency and I do/do not have a debt what should I do?
A. The recorded message encouraging you to call back, without saying what it is in regards to, is a typical tactic used by collection agencies. They will often track down a phone number of the person they think owes money to some company or other and they often get the wrong party.

If you do have any outstanding debt, our advice is to pay it off as quickly as you can and get proof of the payments in writing. If you don't have any outstanding debt, go ahead and call the company back and ask what the call is about. If it is a collection agency, ask for proof of the debt in writing. Under federal law, they are required to provide you proof of debt if requested.

If you feel you are being harassed by a collection agency, report them immediately to the Federal Trade Commission. Harassment to collect a debt is illegal under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. You can find more information about that here.

You can file a complaint with the FTC here.

CONTRACTORS
Q. I am looking for a licensed contractor, where is the best resource to find one in my area?
A. Before you hire ANY contractor, please be sure to check licensing with the Contractors State License Board.

You should also read their brochure on hiring contractors.

If you are looking for a contractor, there are several other services that may be helpful to you. One is Bay Area Consumers' Checkbook -- a service that conducts consumer satisfaction surveys and periodic price surveys with various companies. Checkbook provides recommendations for services ranging from contractors, auto body shops, tailors, and a host of other services.

There's also a service called Angie's List, which basically ranks service providers based on consumer opinions: This is also a subscription-only service although I believe they are offering 1 year free trial memberships in the Bay Area.

You can also check for recommendations from ValueStar or Diamond Certified.

CONTRACTS
Q. I have a contract I want to get out of, where can I go to get help?
A. A signed contract is usually binding. Once a contract has been signed, or a purchase completed, there is little that can be done. For general questions, you can also contact the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC can be reached at 1-877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357). You might also try contacting the California Department of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-952-5210.

COUNTERFEIT CASHIER'S OR SWEEPSTAKES CHECKS
Q. I received a check in the mail and it looks real, how do I know if it's fake or not?
A. This sounds like yet another twist on the old counterfeit cashier's check scam. What often happens in these cases is that you cash the check, your bank credits your account with the funds, but then weeks later, the issuing bank kicks the check back to your bank as bogus, and your bank takes the money back out of your account. By that time, you've probably sent the money on to the "artist" and are now out the full amount of the bogus check. We strongly advise you not to communicate with this person! The best thing to do with that check is tear it up and throw it out!

CREDIT CARD RECEIPTS
Q. Can a business print my full credit card number on my receipt?
A. California law prohibits businesses from printing out the full number on receipts, unless they are using an imprint of the card. With older model credit card processing machines, the card is placed in the device and imprinted with carbon paper. That's the only exception to the law. If the business is printing out credit card receipts (mostly using that thin, yellow paper as the "customer copy") then they can't print out the full number. The California Civil Code is below so you can print out a copy and take it into the business with you. If they don't comply, you can report them to the state Office of Privacy Protection.

1747.09. (a) Except as provided in this section, no person, firm, partnership, association, corporation, or limited liability company that accepts credit or debit cards for the transaction of business shall print more than the last five digits of the credit or debit card account number or the expiration date upon any receipt provided to the cardholder. (b) This section shall apply only to receipts that are electronically printed and shall not apply to transactions in which the sole means of recording the person's credit or debit card number is by handwriting or by an imprint or copy of the credit or debit card.

CREDIT COUNSELING
Q. Can you recommend a credit counseling service to consolidate my debts?
A. There are many non-profit credit counseling services available throughout the Bay Area. While we are prohibited from making recommendations for specific products or services, we have had good experiences with Consumer Credit Counseling Service, which is run through the National Foundation for Consumer Credit. You can get more information about them here.

Please also check the Federal Trade Commission website for tips on how to choose a credit counseling service.

CREDIT REPORT ERRORS
Q. Where can I go to fix problems or errors on my credit report?
A. The Federal Trade Commission website has a very helpful pamphlet on how to properly go about dispute errors on your credit report. Please note that you can always do this yourself and do not have to pay a service to "fix" your credit history.

CREDIT MONITORING
Q. What is the best way to monitor my credit?
A. Although there are many legitimate credit monitoring services, most consumer advocacy groups say that you shouldn't have to pay for something you can easily do yourself. That said, if you have reason to believe that your credit may be particularly vulnerable (if you're a recent ID theft victim, for example), you need to weigh whether or not the fee will be worth your peace of mind.

Unfortunately, 7 On Your Side is prohibited from making specific recommendations for services, but there are many consumer groups that have articles on this subject. Here are a few websites which should provide helpful information for you if you are deciding whether or not to pay for credit monitoring:
http://www.consumersunion.org/creditmatters/creditmattersfactsheets/001634.html
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/credit/rights.shtm

DEBT COLLECTION - ZOMBIE DEBTS
Q. A debt collection company is trying to collect a debt that is years old, what can I do?
A. The statute of limitations varies by state -- so if your debt was incurred in California, state law would set the statute - 4 years, in most cases. The state Department of Consumer Affairs website has a good legal guide on this topic.

You can also read more about collection agencies and your rights when dealing with them under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FTC website has some good information.

There is also a lot of information on this issue on the internet if you search for "zombie debts" or "re-aging debt."

DELIVERY OR SERVICE REPAIR "WINDOWS"
Q. I waited over four hours for a delivery or repair service, do I have any recourse?
A. Under California Civil Code 1722, companies that have 25 or more employees must provide you with a 4-hour window in which they will make the delivery or provide the service (such as repairs). If they fail to do so, or they fail to make that 4-hour window, the consumer can sue in small claims court for up to $600. The only exception is if the failure to meet the window is due to reasonable "unforeseen circumstances." The company must also notify the consumer within a reasonable amount of time if it knows in advance that it will not make the 4-hour window. At that time, the company must provide a 2-hour window for a future date. The full text of the California law is below for you to read, and possibly to provide to the company in question.

DO NOT CALL VIOLATIONS
Q. I am on the Do Not Call List and I am still getting calls, what can I do?
A. We're sorry to hear about your experiences with the telemarketing company which is violating Do Not Call laws. I would suggest noting the date, time and company who calls. Get a specific employee name if possible. Inform them calmly that they are in violation of federal law and that you will exercise your legal right to sue them for $500 per call if they continue to contact you. Also, inform them that you are filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, and make sure to follow-up on that. You can file a complaint online.

We also suggest that you contact the company in question to let them know you are being wrongfully harassed by someone claiming to be with their company. Give them information you have on the caller (the number off your caller ID, dates & times of calls, etc.). Inform them you have the caller on tape (which is legal as long as you disclose up front that you recorded them), and that you will pursue legal action if necessary to make the calls stop. One final idea is a little extreme -- if it is really disturbing, contact your phone company and inquire about either blocking the number or getting a printout of all your incoming calls. That way, you have something in writing to prove the calls came from that number, at numerous times.

FINANCIAL OPT-OUT
Q. I am constantly getting credit card offers in the mail, what can I do to relieve some of the offers?
A. 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (888-567-8688) is the legitimate toll-free number that connects you with a service run jointly by the three national credit bureaus. They are the ones who have a legal right to sell your name for credit card, insurance and other financial solicitations. However, you can call this number and "opt out." The credit bureaus were ordered by Congress to create this shared one-call opt-out system in 1996.

FLOOD DAMAGED CARS
Q. Where do I check to see if a car I want to buy was ever in a flood?
A. It's best to have a mechanic do a thorough check of the car before you make any purchase. They can look specifically for possible signs of flood damage, such as: corrosion, rust or stains in areas where water normally wouldn't or shouldn't reach. You should also check the carpet and upholstery in the interior and trunk for a musty or moldy smell.

The databases you can use to check the car's VIN:
National Insurance Crime Bureau
Carfax Free Flood Damage check
Experian Automotive Free Flood Damage Check

FREE CREDIT REPORTS
Q. I want to get my free credit report, how do I go about this?
A. You can order your free credit reports from the 3 major credit bureaus by going to this website: www.annualcreditreport.com. If you try to order it from any other source (such as directly from a credit bureau) they will all try to make you pay for it. They are only processing free reports through the centralized website listed above.

Please be advised: if you order your report online, you will only see your reports right then and there, on the screen. You will only get a hard copy in the mail unless you order the reports via snail mail (by filling out the request form on the website) or if you order by phone at 1-877-322-8228 If you order by mail, it will take at least 15 days from the date they received your order for them to send the report to you.

GIFT CARD/GIFT CERTIFICATE EXPIRATIONS
Q. Can a gift card or gift certificate expire?
A. Unfortunately, there are certain circumstances in which a gift certificate or gift card *can* expire, such as if they were received through a promotion or discount. If your gift card was obtained through a rewards program (such as a frequent flier program), it actually can expire. Also, if the gift card was bought in bulk by an employer or other business, and the amount paid for the gift card was less than the actual value of the gift card, then the card can expire. Lastly, if the gift card was purchased in a state outside California, in a state that does not have an expiration date ban as we do, the card can expire. Basically, the laws of the state where it was sold will apply.

That being said, there's no reason that you can't argue for a business to honor the cards or certificates. The best way to do that is to present them a copy of California's gift card law. I'll link the test of the law below. It's rather long, but it's pretty straight-forward. Take a copy of it with you when you try to redeem your gift certificate. You can also read more information about this law on the state Department of Consumer Affairs.

IDENTITY THEFT
Q. I am a victim of identity theft, what should I do?
A. One of the best online resources for information about what to do if you may be a victim of identity theft is the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. You can also get good information from the state Office of Privacy Protection.

JUNK FAXES
Q. I get junk faxes on my home fax machine, how can I stop this?
A. Unfortunately, despite the illegality of junk faxes, the government has done little to provide real consumer protections. In fact, Congress recently passed a law that makes it easier for junkfaxers to do business. There is a website, run by the CEO of a prominent Bay Area company, which offer good tips on how to try to combat junk faxes.

One thing we can all do is continue to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission. We can only hope that if the FCC hears from enough consumers, they will finally take some sort of action. To file a complaint, call 1-888-225-5322 or go to the FCC's website.

You can send a letter of complaint to:
Federal Communications Commission
Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th St. SW
Washington, DC 20554

JUNK MAIL
Q. How can I stop the junk mail I receive to my home?
A. If you want off as many national mailing lists as possible, your first step is to contact the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Mail Preference Service (MPS). You must re-register after five years.

Register for the Mail Preference Service by mail ($1).
Send a post card or a letter with a check of money order for $1 to:
Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
PO Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512

You can get a sample mail-in form from the non-profit group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse: When you register, your name and address are placed in a "do not mail" file which is updated monthly and distributed to DMA members quarterly. DMA members are required to update their lists at least quarterly, and some do it monthly. Businesses who are not members of the DMA also take advantage of this "do not mail" list, so registering with the DMA will reduce much of your junk mail.

You may also sign up online at the DMA's website for a $1 fee charged to your credit card. Fill out the form (at the bottom of the page) and click on the Register Online button. You'll be taken to a secure web page where you can enter your credit card information. DMA says this option is quicker.

If you are receiving a lot of financial solicitations (which is typical especially after you buy or refinance a home), you should opt-out with the three national credit bureaus, who (unfortunately) have a legal right to sell your name for credit card, insurance and other financial solicitations. However, you can call 1-888-5OPT-OUT (888-567-8688) and "opt out." The credit bureaus were ordered by Congress to create this shared one-call opt-out system in 1996. Please be advised that this (the 888-OPTOUT hotline) is a rare situation in which you will need to provide your social security number. The credit bureaus are among the few agencies still allowed to identify consumers with a social security number.

LANDLORD/TENANT
Q. I am a landlord/tenant and having an issue, where can I go for advice?

A. Unfortunately, we often cannot get involved with landlord/tenant issues but can refer you. The state Department of Consumer Affairs also publishes a helpful handbook which is updated every year.

LAWYERS INVOLVEMENT
Q. Can Seven On Your Side assist me if I currently have a lawyer/attorney working on my consumer complaint?
A. Unfortunately, 7 On Your Side is prohibited from getting involved with any case in which the consumer has retained an attorney. If you are receiving legal advice from a paid professional, your consumer rights should be adequately protected.

Q. Where do I find information about hiring an attorney?
A. If your problem is of a legal nature, you may want to consider contacting an attorney. For assistance locating an attorney, you can contact the California BAR association. Each county BAR association also has a lawyer referral service. These can be found in your phone book. Attorneys are usually available for an initial low-cost or free consultation.

LOAN MODIFICATION
Q. Where can I go to get loan modification advice?
A. The federal government has certified hundreds of non-profit agencies to help people just like yourself.

It will take you to a list of Non-profits certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The list is broken down by city in alphabetical order.

These agencies can provide you counseling tailored to your needs. They can also assist you in getting a loan modification. Loan modifications are difficult to get, but these certified housing counselors offer your best chance of getting one.

We strongly recommend against paying a lawyer or other for profit agency for the same service you can get for free. If anyone asks you for money upfront, walk away.

In the meantime, you might want to look at this FAQ from HUD. It provides answers to some of the more frequently asked questions about this topic.

Q. Where can I get help if I am having problems with my lender and modifying my home?
A. If you are having problems getting your lender to modify your home mortgage or if you have paid a third-party company to help you but they have not performed as promise, the following free help is available:

Go to www.makinghomeaffordable.gov or call (888) 995-4673 for getting modification help from the Federal government Department of Health and Urban Development. They will contact your lender to try to negotiate on your behalf.

There is a website that can walk you through the step to try to avoid a foreclosure.

If you paid a company to help you negotiate with your mortgage lender but they have not performed as promised, fill out the online complaint form at www.calbar.ca.gov or call their California Bar Association compliance department at 1-800-843-9053. Also the attorney general's office is taking complaints at www.ag.ca.gov/consumers. Finally, the Federal Trade Commission would be interested in hearing your consumer complaint.

LOTTERY SCAMS
Q. I received an email and/or letter in the mail saying I won a lottery; is this a scam?
A. International lotteries are a very common type of scam. First, consider whether or not you actually purchased a lottery ticket. If not, it wouldn't be feasible for you to win. Second, it is illegal in the U.S. to purchase lottery tickets from other countries by phone or mail. Yet scammers continue to attempt to trick innocent consumers into believing they have won. In any case, the notification you received is, unfortunately, probably one of those scams. Please read the information from the Federal Trade Commission's website.

MEDICAL INSURANCE ISSUES
Q. I have a problem with my medical insurance, can you assist me?
A. Unfortunately, we are unable to assist in cases that involve health insurance. However, there is a wonderful resource available to consumers for help with medical claims issues. It is called the California Consumer Health Care Council. This group can typically assist in cases related to denied claims, early hospital discharges, coverage limitations or changes, etc. You can reach them at:

California Consumer Health Care Council
1275 Fourth Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95404-4057
(888)225-2686
1-888-CAL-COUNCIL

MYSTERY SHOPPERS/SECRET SHOPPERS
Q. I received an offer online and/or in the mail to be a Mystery Shopper, is this legitimate?
A. Unfortunately, we are prohibited from answering specific inquiries or providing recommendations about products or services. However, here is information on mystery shopping from the Federal Trade Commission.

NIGERIAN SCAM
Q. What is the Nigerian scam?
A. The so-called "Nigerian" scam that has been around for about a decade. Here is some helpful information about them from the Federal Trade Commission.

PHISHING
Q. I received an email asking me to enter my account number and personal information with a company I already do business with. Is this is scam?
A. This is indeed a scam, commonly known as "phishing." Please read the following information from the Federal Trade Commission.

SMALL CLAIMS COURT
Q. I want to file a small claims court case, where do I go for information?
A. If your dispute involves an amount under $7500, you may wish to contact Small Claims Court for assistance. Filing fees are moderate and the process is straight forward. Each county also has a Small Claims Advisor, whose services are free. Information on the small claims process is available here. You can also request written information by calling the Department of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-952-5210.

UNCLAIMED PROPERTY
Q. I received a letter in the mail from a company claiming I am owed money, is it true?
A. It's highly possible that the government is holding some money for you, but you do NOT have to pay anything to get it! Businesses like "U.S. Claims Service" will try to get you to pay them to get the money for you. But the truth is, you can do it yourself very easily, and for FREE! All you need to do is check with the state controller's office to see if you do have money coming to you. You fill out a claim form, mail it in, wait for them to verify that you are who you say you are, and they'll mail you a check. Anytime someone owes you money, you shouldn't have to pay anything to recover it.

Here is the website you can go to in order to check if you have money from the state: http://scoweb.sco.ca.gov/UCP/

Again, all you do is fill out the government's form, and you should get the check -- for FREE -- although it may take several weeks.

UNORDERED MERCHANDISE
Q. I received merchandise in the mail that I never ordered, what do I do?
A. Federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment, so if you receive something you didn't ask for, you have a right to keep it without paying for it. If it's something expensive, that you're worried you might be held liable for, you could write to the company that sent it, let them know you didn't order it, and that they have 30 days from the date of the letter to pick it up on their dime. If they don't, you can keep it with a clear conscience. Make sure you send that letter return receipt requested or certified, so you have a record. Here's more information from the Federal Trade Commission.

WORK-AT-HOME
Q. Are work-at-home programs legitimate?
A. Unfortunately, we have rarely -- if ever -- encountered a work-at-home program that really was legitimate. We are prohibited from providing recommendations for or against specific products or services but we can, however, tell you that state and federal regulators have issued warnings about many work-at-home schemes.

Here are some links with helpful information:
Federal Trade Commission
Better Business Bureau
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