Today, in the age of technology, we have an even greater responsibility to protect ourselves from fraudulent and predatory business practices that continue to weaken Ohio’s economy and threaten the safety and security of all Ohioans.
We’re all vulnerable to illegal and predatory business practices. I don’t answer phone calls that I don’t recognize or click online advertisements. I don’t open emails that I don’t recognize or that land in the junk folder. I don’t sign up for sweepstakes and I don’t pay bills online. I don’t give out my personal information to many people, but despite my attempts to protect myself from fraud, I was still scammed for more than $3,000 recently.
One morning in January when the temperatures dipped below zero for several consecutive days, my car would not start. The battery light was illuminated. I realized that I had left several charger devices plugged into the outlet in my trunk overnight. I needed to have a battery jump.
Thankfully, I had just signed up for a new roadside service program. I called the program’s 1-800 number and went through a series of prompts. It was all automated, but I eventually got to the part where it asked me if I needed roadside assistance. The automated system stated that I would be placed on a temporary hold until the next available customer service representative was available to assist me. After more than 50 minutes of being on hold and never talking to a live person, I hung up the phone.
I pay my car insurance over the phone, and when I had called to make a payment in December, I was greeted with an automated voice that said I was eligible for the roadside assistance package through my insurance for a seasonal discount. It connected me to a live person, whom I thought was an insurance sales representative and who verified my information — including my social security number and my vehicle’s VIN number.
After being unable to reach roadside assistance when my car battery died, I went to look for the paperwork the company had sent me. I had already paid my monthly installment for the roadside assistance. I looked more closely at the paperwork. In small print, I saw that the company had billed me for over $3,000 for the roadside assistance program, to be paid in monthly installments over the course of three years, but I had not agreed to sign up for a $3,000 roadside assistance program.
The roadside assistance program would not be included in my monthly car insurance bill, it was billed separately because it turned out that it was actually not affiliated with my car insurance company. I found that the company has hundreds or even thousands of complaints from consumers who wrote that the company is a scam. Consumers wrote that even when they called the company to ask them to stop the monthly payments, the company refused to cooperate. Many people reported that it was very difficult to get any program assistance from the company.
I decided that I had to cancel the bank account because they would soon deduct the next monthly installment in the next week. After the bank account was cancelled, they sent me additional bills and now I believe they would like to report me to the credit agencies for defaulting on the alleged $3,000 agreement.
This week we heard from two residents in Washington Court House who each said they had been scammed lately. They had taken a lot of precautions to protect themselves from fraud, just as I had, only to be tricked into a deceptive business practice.
As we found out, the consumer protection section of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office shares in the responsibility of protecting Ohioans from predatory and illegal business practices.
According to its website, the consumer protection section of the Attorney General’s Office “works to protect Ohio consumers by conducting local and state investigations and by joining multi-state and federal investigations” and “assists local law enforcement and prosecutors in identifying, investigating, and prosecuting consumer fraud of a criminal nature.”
However, the Attorney General’s Office has just three investigators assigned to this section.
The Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection states on their website that people are getting more “robocalls” than ever: “Technology is the reason: Companies are using auto-dialers that can send out thousands of phone calls every minute for an incredibly low cost.”
The FTC also states, “Telemarketing sales calls with recorded messages are generally illegal unless you have given the company written permission to call you.”
Generally, we don’t read the terms and conditions in agreements when we sign up for things like car insurance, phone plans and internet agreements. By signing up and accepting a plan or program, we may be signing away our privacy by unknowingly agreeing to be contacted by third parties and agreeing to have our names and phone numbers sold to other companies for marketing and research purposes; this is what they could mean by “written permission” so essentially we may be agreeing to be spammed when we sign up for plans.
The company that scammed me for $3,000 has bad business bureau reviews and reports going back more than five years. Somehow, despite the existence of agencies like the FTC and the Attorney General’s Office, the company that has scammed me and others for thousands of dollars is allowed to continue to operate with its deceptive business practices still today.
Corporations aren’t made to protect people, they’re made to make a profit off people. By and large, this means that consumers themselves must be able to take even greater measures to identify, investigate and possibly prosecute fraudulent business practices on their own. Though in the fine print of the terms and conditions, we may have unknowingly agreed to receive spam calls.
Ashley Bunton is a reporter for the Record Herald in Washington Court House.