Consumer IQ

5 Situations When Consumers Need to Be Extra Careful

If you’re a trusting kind of person, then chances are you’ve been ripped off more than a few times.

You’re not alone, my friend. I’ve fallen for so many scams, I’ve almost lost count.

But here’s a useful exercise: Do you know who you can trust? A Gallup survey of honesty and ethics finds that nurses, pharmacists and doctors are ranked the most ethical (in that order).

Also scoring high: teachers, police officers and members of the clergy.

Of more interest to those of us who want to avoid falling for a fraudulent offer is the bottom of the list. Here’s who the survey found the least trustworthy, and a few insights on how to avoid being taken advantage of when you’re a customer:

If you’re buying a car.

Car salespeople ranked dead last in the latest Gallup survey and if you’ve been to a car dealership recently, I probably don’t have to tell you why. The high-pressure sales tactics and the price games are a total turn-off to customers. Also, the suspicion that your salesperson may not be telling the entire truth never quite fades, even long after you’ve driven your new or used car home.

The fix: It’s possible to bypass the sales department by buying your vehicle online or asking the fleet sales department (those are the folks that sell more than one car at a time, usually to other businesses) to quote a price.

If someone is trying to sell you something by phone.

The second-worst performance – by just one percentage point – went to telemarketers. Again, your experience probably bears this out. If you get a random call from someone trying to sell anything from magazine subscriptions to a timeshare, you know there’s probably something shady going on. What’s more, telemarketers usually don’t have the best phone manners. They can be insistent and they always seem to have a comeback when you’re trying to politely say “no.”

The fix: Get yourself on the national “do not call” registry.

When you’re seeing an ad – any ad.

Advertising practitioners are next on the list and that’s no surprise. Advertising often relies on too-good-to-be-true claims to achieve its goals instead of presenting a product honestly. Frankly, American consumers have been burned too many times to give this profession any hope of regaining any level of trust they may have once had in it.  That’s too bad. Done correctly, advertising could provide a valuable public service – and drive sales at the same time. Done incorrectly, it can and will lead you down the road to Scamville.

The fix: Don’t believe everything you see, especially if it’s an advertisement.

When you’re buying stocks.

Stockbrockers rank low on the Gallup survey, too. The image of a fast-talking broker trying to sell worthless shares to a hapless widow comes to mind. I spent two years working on Wall Street, and while that’s something of a cliché, the role many of these slick salespeople played in the subprime mess can’t be denied. It’s also true that even reputable stockbrokers often charge outrageous fees, which they get to keep regardless of how your portfolio fares.

The fix: Buy your shares online and you’ll avoid the come-ons from these sometimes ethically challenged professionals.

When you’re dealing with an executive.

CEOs and other high-level managers also scored low in the survey. Perhaps the only shocker is that they didn’t score any lower than they did. All you have to do is open your local business section to see the latest revelation of an executive caught lying, cheating, stealing and more often than that, all of the above. There’s a Sicilian proverb, “The fish rots from the head down,” that’s often used to describe the ethical and moral void so often found in the corner office.

The fix: Thinking of appealing your problem to the president of the company? You might want to reconsider and try a VP or middle manager instead.

The Gallup results underscore the importance of staying vigilant as a customer. While there’s no need to become paranoid, there are certain times when you should be extra cautious.

You’ll thank me for it someday.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.