7 Major Consumer Rip-offs to Watch Out for in the Holiday Shopping Season

Nobody likes getting fleeced and flimflammed, but the scammers are out in full force ready to separate you from your hard-earned cash. Here are some common rip-offs to watch out for, from phony ice cream to Machiavellian movers.

1. Online shopping clubs.

‘Tis the shopping season, and everybody craves a bargain. Online shopping clubs advertising awesome deals and killer discounts are popping up like mushrooms on the web. Many are rife with unsavory practices that can lighten your wallet.

Sometimes the “discount” prices are misleading, and can even be higher than retail prices. Common issues include poor or nonexistent customer service, poor quality products, tacked-on fees, and bait-and-switch scams in which you purchase an item for someone else with a credit card and subsequently find yourself signed up for a “rewards club” that charges your card a monthly fee.

Recently, I became registered with a Montreal-based company called “Beyond the Rack” which offers “flash sales” on clothing items, despite the fact that I don’t recall having signed up. Nevertheless, I received an email from the company telling me that I owed it $15. When I called the number provided, an associate told me that the email had been sent in error and was supposed to say that my “account” had been “credited” for $15. A strange error! Turns out that Beyond the Rack has made this error repeatedly, and online forums are filled with reports from pissed-off people who have received similar emails. Customers have complained of slow delivery, items delivered that are different from what was shown on the site, and failure to refund for broken or faulty products.

Be wary of signing up for any online club before you have researched the company, and make sure you compare listed prices on discounted items and report any discrepancies. Also, beware of any discount offer that pops up after a purchase has been made. Know that the data you enter, even on a legitimate site, may be shared with less reputable partners, and that even includes credit card information in some cases.

2. Ice cream that isn’t ice cream.

You buy a pint of ice cream and rush home to be transported by the creamy goodness. Then you take a bite. What’s this? The product is gooey and gummy and odd-tasting. Maybe that’s because what you purchased isn’t actually ice cream.

Breyers has been making ice cream since 1866, and was famous for its Pledge of Purity guarantee and simple ingredients. But Breyers has done a little under-the-radar switcharoo, turning many of its products into something called a “frozen dairy dessert,” complete with nasty gums and corn syrup and unpronounceable ingredients. The company can no longer legally call such products “ice cream” because there’s not enough cream or milk fats to meet the standards set by the USDA (score one for government regulation).

But you’d have to read the fine print on the packaging to know that your beloved Butter Pecan ice cream is now a chemical swamp.

In what appears to have been a cost-cutting move (using less dairy fat is cheaper), Breyers has been selling this gunk to unsuspecting customers for a few years now. Despite shrunken packages and cheaper ingredients, the price has only gone up.

Breyers is not alone in this hustle, though its brand image as something pure and wholesome makes it particularly obnoxious. Turkey Hill, which lures customers with images of friendly Amish farmers, is also in on the game, sneaking out a line of products called “Stuff’d” which are stuffed with things that aren’t ice cream. The Turkey Hill website sings the praises of these frankenfoods:

“Sometimes you want a frozen dairy dessert that is jam-packed with nuts, candies, and flavor. That's why Turkey Hill created Stuff'd, the ice cream that's stuffed to the lid with all of your favorite ingredients.”

Do your favorite ingredients include polysorbate 80, propylene glycol monoesters, and high fructose corn syrup? Sometimes you want an ice cream that is actually ice cream.

3. Suspicious solar panels.

You’re trying to do your part for the environment, but someone out there wants to scam you with misleading deals concerning solar panels. There are a variety of cons happening, including lies about how much the solar panels can save you, phony do-it-yourself manuals, and sneaky fine print about finance agreements. Reports of defective panels that disintegrate quickly are also a concern — particularly those that originate in China.

How to avoid: Do careful research, compare prices from various companies, and check the paperwork carefully before signing up for any solar panel deal. Avoid telemarketers and web ads from outfits you’ve never heard of. Check on state and federal programs that could save you money on installation costs.

4. “Legendary” liquors.

You can spend a lot of dough on luxury liquors, and marketing teams are constantly inventing fanciful stories about the pedigrees of their products to tempt you.

The makers of Benedictine liqueur, for example, claim that the original recipe was discovered in the notes of a 16th-century alchemist and that the monks have followed it ever since. Actually, as Wayne Curtis noted in the Atlantic, the product was developed by a rich industrialist in the 19th century.

Because liquor makers don’t have to list their main ingredients on labels, they can concoct all kinds of myths and fables along with the booze. Popular elements in recipe legends are links to royalty, celebrities, state secrets, etc. Legend of Kremlin vodka is marketed as the reconstruction of a recipe from a 15th-century Kremlin monk — which is especially amazing since vodka is pretty much the same thing whenever and however it’s made: pure ethanol. 

The secret ingredient in pedigreed liquor is usually the same: clever marketing.

5. Overpayment scams.

Maybe you’d like to sell some items online, perhaps on Craigslist or a similar classified site. You advertise your item and receive a check from someone wishing to purchase it. But the amount is too much. Oops! says the buyer, who tells you that you can go ahead and deposit the check and just please refund the difference.

Problem is, there won’t be any funds to cover the buyer’s check you’ve just deposited (which might be counterfeit), and you will end up losing the difference and the buyer will vanish. Often the scammer will request the difference to be refunded by wire, a tip-off that there’s something wrong and that the buyer is in a hurry to get your money before your bank discovers the bad check. In general, you should never accept overpayment for something you’re selling, no matter what the excuse.

Be sure to report a check overpayment scam to your state Attorney General.

6. Moving company scams.

In 2012, there were 11,100 complaints to the Better Business Bureau nationwide regarding movers. That’s a lot of soggy mattresses and broken lamps. A big trend in the world of moving fraud is companies that offer low fees and then jack the price up once the job is underway, sometimes even threatening to auction off items in the truck if the new price is not met.

Finding a reputable moving company does not mean calling up some dude with a truck on Craiglist, no matter how tempting that might be. Ask for suggestions from friends or real estate agents. Don’t accept an estimate over the phone: ask for an in-home estimate and get it in writing. Fill out an inventory and list the condition of items before the move. You’ll also want to check references and try to choose a company that has been in business for a while. Be careful of large moving companies that might subcontract the work to another firm. Find out the details of coverage under your state’s law in case of an accident: if you are moving something especially valuable, you may want to go with extra insurance.

The federal government has an online booklet designed for people who are moving that outlines rights and responsibilities and offers tips on how to avoid problems.

7. “Healthy” fruit smoothies.

Americans obsess over eating healthfully, but unfortunately that focus can sometimes lead us down the wrong path, as with the recent revelations that vitamin supplements are nearly always useless.

Until just recently, there was a little joint called the Paradise Café next to my gym that sold healthy smoothies made from “real fresh fruit.” I would always feel very virtuous ordering one after my workout. A favorite was the orange/pineapple/coconut special.

One day I happened to observe the guy pulling items from the refrigerator to make my smoothie, including a carton of regular supermarket orange juice. When I questioned him, he pointed out that the store-bought item was “100% orange juice.” Uh, what about the coconut? Canned coconut water. The pineapple, he told me, was at least actual fruit.

Turns out many smoothies are not what you might imagine. McDonald’s smoothies contain loads of sugar and ingredients like "dimethylpolysiloxane," a silicone-based emulsifier. You might expect that from Mickey D’s, but even your local health food chain might be selling smoothies containing cheap protein powders and vitamin supplements that do nothing for your health. Some are laden with up to 600 calories.

Some scientists are reporting that smoothies are actually a health risk and note that companies like Coca-Cola are getting into the game of making smoothies that are marketed as healthy but might be little better than soda. They advise that it’s probably much better for you just to peel an orange if you crave something fruity.

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