Consumer IQ

How to Get to the Bottom of a Scam

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Lou Bromberger is a hero. At least, he is to me.

Bromberger recently discovered a mysterious charge on his Visa card from a company that purported to monitor his credit. He hadn’t signed up for the service, at least not that he could remember, and the company was charging his card $29.95 a month for something he didn’t want.

All of the usual methods for getting a refund weren’t working, including a polite email and an appeal to a manager.

When he asked me for help, I didn’t know what to do. The company had an ironclad contract that allowed it to suck almost 30 bucks out of his credit card every month. A refund seemed impossible.

“There is no question that this company makes a lot of money by cheating people,” he said.

I agreed. The cheat seemed legal, though. Cardholders were opting in to the service — apparently without knowing it — and that’s when the scammers sprung their trap.

But Bromberger persisted. Even though the company had gone to great lengths to conceal the identity of its owners, he tracked them down and asked them for help. Eventually, they refunded all of his money. I asked him to explain how he did it.

Start with an email.

Although Bromberger knew this would fail (the company had thousands of complaints online), it was a necessary step, because it proved he had gone through all the channels.

The fact that the company ignored him didn’t matter. He had his email to show he’d tried to solve this the old-fashioned way.

Find out who controls the scam.

That proved to be a more difficult task. With a lot of complaints, the parent company had gone to great lengths to ensure it wouldn’t be found.

Bromberger says he almost gave up, but then stumbled across the name on the Better Business Bureau site. “I hit pay dirt,” he says.

Butter up the gatekeeper.

Bromberger knew he had one more hurdle: A secretary who was designed to turn anyone away who had a refund request. He decided that “nice” would be the best strategy, which it usually is.

Instead of identifying himself as a disgruntled customer, he asked her if she could provide the email address of the CEO because he had some feedback on one of the company’s products.

The final act — asking for his money back — was relatively easy.

“I let him know I was persistent and not interested in giving him or the company any further hassle,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to give up until the problem was solved.”

The fact that Bromberger had the right person’s name ensured a rapid and successful resolution, he says.

Scammers try to hide behind shell companies and fake storefronts. Consumers with strong research skills and a little patience — people like Bromberger — can resolve their disputes even when the odds are against them.

My hat’s off to people like him. I learned a lot from his case and I think everyone else can, too.

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.