The importance of protecting consumers

Recently I received a phone call to the Northwest District Attorney’s Office Consumer Protection Unit from a local woman concerned about ...



Recently I received a phone call to the Northwest District Attorney’s Office Consumer Protection Unit from a local woman concerned about an interaction she had after receiving a message that his social security number had been used to commit a crime.

The message said she needed to return the call to avoid having her benefits frozen. Naturally, she was alarmed. She called the number she had been given, but soon became uncomfortable with the questions she was being asked, so she hung up and called our office.

I let her know that she was absolutely right to trust her instincts and hang up the phone. It was indeed a scam, quite common – and luckily it did not divulge the kind of information that could lead to a loss of funds. However, we sometimes hear from residents after they have lost money.

For example, a resident called about a phone message saying he had won second prize in a lottery. When he returned that call, he was asked to buy $1,500 in gift cards to cover legal fees in order to claim his prize. Long story short, he lost his $1,500. By the time he realized it was a scam, the phone had been disconnected with no way to get his money back.

These cautionary tales illustrate two important points to remember:

1. The Social Security Administration will not call to report foul play. This type of message will always be a scam.

2. You will never be asked to use gift cards to pay legal fees. You will also not be asked to pay any money to accept the money you have won. These are just tricks to rob you. Gift cards are for gifts, not payments.

I worked in the Consumer Protection Unit at Northwestern DA for nearly five years, first as a case coordinator and then as a unit director. Our unit provides advocacy and assistance to consumers who feel they have been wronged or need help resolving a consumer complaint.

I work with a colleague, Joanne O’Donoghue, who joined the unit this year as a case coordinator. We both work to answer questions, provide information and advocate on behalf of consumers. No workday is the same, but one problem continues to arise every day: criminals trying to trick people into giving them money or their personal information. Although the details change, the end goal is the same: to get something out of you that you don’t want them to have.

In conjunction with the Consumer Advocacy and Attorney General’s Response Division, Joanne and I assist consumers in an informal process that includes telephone conversations and other correspondence to arrive at appropriate consumer complaint settlements. both consumers and businesses. When consumers file complaints with the Attorney General’s office, many of those complaints are referred to local consumer programs like ours. We are working with both parties to try to resolve the issue.

Common complaints relate to retail transactions, automobile purchases and home improvement projects. We recently succeeded in helping a consumer who purchased a leaky faulty washing machine receive a refund after months of trying to fix the problem on their own. We did this by contacting the manufacturer, providing photos and documentation, after which the consumer was offered a refund to purchase a new washing machine. We do not provide legal advice or representation, but we can help you resolve disputes that once seemed intractable.

This week, March 6-12, is National Consumer Protection Week. For Joanne and I, this is another opportunity to raise awareness of consumer rights and a chance to educate the community about fraud and scams. We will be hosting a virtual presentation titled “Preventing Scams and Identity Theft” on Tuesday, March 8 at 11 a.m., open to everyone. We’ll talk about the types of scams we see in our area, new tactics being used to get your money and personal information, and most importantly, how to protect yourself from identity theft. We’ll also outline the steps to take if you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft and there will be time for questions.

Working from the Northampton and Greenfield offices of the Northwestern DA office, Joanne and I serve residents of Franklin and Hampshire counties as well as 17 communities in northwest Worcester County, providing consumer assistance, education and providing information to callers, visitors and community groups.

Our unit is one of 18 local consumer programs working in cooperation with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office to fight for consumer rights. We receive training to help resolve consumer complaints through consumer advocacy and assistance and engage in prevention by providing educational opportunities, resources and referrals to the public.

The prevention of fraud and theft by educating and informing consumers is one of the missions of our unit. We offer programs on consumer issues such as buying used cars, credit and debt problems, scam prevention as well as interactive Jeopardy-style quizzes for participants of all ages. We are available to do in-person or virtual presentations. If your community group or organization is interested, please contact me directly.

During National Consumer Awareness Week or any other time, we encourage you to contact our office or visit our website NorthwesternDA.org for more information about your consumer rights. To register for the Preventing Scams and Identity Theft presentation, contact the Consumer Protection Unit at 413-586-9225 in Northampton or 413-774-3186 in Greenfield and we’ll send you the Zoom link.

Anita Wilson is the Director of the Consumer Protection Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.



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