10 Tools to Help You Become a Smarter Consumer


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The first week of March is National Consumer Protection Week, and government and private organizations across the nation have been sharing advice and resources for consumers. Topics discussed range from online privacy and scams to debt and money management. Cheapism.com sifted through the resources on the NCPW website and checked in with a personal finance expert for the best tips.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation operates a Money Smart Podcast Network that lets consumers download audio information on bank accounts, personal finance, credit, and general financial literacy. From "Opening a Checking Account" to "The Basics of Borrowing Money Wisely," all the basics are covered. PDF guides are also available.

Before paying for investment advice, make sure you'll be working with a licensed, reputable professional. Broker Check is a free online tool available from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority that lets you look up background information on potential brokers, brokerage firms, and investment advisors.

You've probably seen the ads: "I earn $1,000 a week working from home!" The Federal Trade Commission provides examples of some common ways consumers may be tempted by offers to work from home. The FTC warns that many of these "opportunities" are scams that actually leave people paying to work. The posting helps guide you through questions to ask and places to research work-at-home businesses.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been handling complaints about credit card companies since mid-2011 and now offers consumers recourse when they have trouble with other financial services, such as mortgages and student loans. A comprehensive database also helps the bureau warn potential customers about disreputable companies.

If you've been a victim of fraud, deception, or just plain unfair business practices, your state's attorney general's office is there to help, notes Jeanette Pavini, a financial columnist from the Bay Area in California. There's often an entire section of the department website devoted to consumer protection and easy-to-find contact information.

The FTC outlines the expensive downsides of the ever-tempting free-trial offer and gives consumers advice on how to avoid getting sucked in. This guide walks you through actions to take when cancelling a trial offer and explains what to do if a company refuses to stop charging.

More consumer advice from the FTC: Cut your utility bills during the cold months by conducting an energy assessment, cleaning or replacing air filters, and taking other steps to increase efficiency. The agency's tips can help you prepare your home for efficient heating and cooling throughout the year.

Companies that promise cheap and easy weight loss or miracle cures have ripped off many an unsuspecting consumer. The Food and Drug Administration points out six "tip-offs to rip-offs" that can help you avoid common scams and products that may hurt your health and your wallet.

By law you can request a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus -- Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian -- once every 12 months. The reports should be nearly identical and if you spread out your requests you can receive a copy every four months. There's only one official website for making the requests: AnnualCreditReport.com.

When dealing with overwhelming debt, the first step can be the hardest. Consumer Credit Counseling Services offers free resources, including a free consultation with a credit and debt counselor. By the end of the session, Pavini says, you'll have a workable, personalized budget to follow and a plan for how to get out of debt and start saving.

Free consumer advice available online extends well beyond the resources listed here. As much as National Consumer Protection Week is about helping people protect their personal information and avoid scams, the initiative is also dedicated to promoting financial literacy. For those who are unclear about the difference between debit, credit, and prepaid cards, or wonder about the safety of mobile banking, the NPCW site provides answers.

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