smart spending

Don't get hooked by these 9 scams

In fact, experts warn that you should never do business with a stranger who knocks on your door. And, although states differ in their regulations and standards, reputable home inspectors don't solicit business this way. You can check out home inspectors through their professional organizations. The ASHI Web site at www.ashi.org is a good place to start.

9. Clean checks

If you pay your bills using paper checks, don't stick them in your personal mailbox and raise the proverbial "red flag" for pickup from a postal worker. It's far more likely to attract the wrong person.

Instead, mail your bills at the post office. Even better -- pay bills electronically or by bank draft.

Check washers, who often work in gangs, target the homes of people who leave mail in their boxes. In the past, they've stolen envelopes containing checks, removed the ink from the "payee" and "amount" portions, upped the amount and cashed the forged checks. Since they preserve the original signature, the check looks valid to the bank.

Lynne Variano, a board-certified forensic document examiner and expert, says there's a new twist to this con. Instead of reusing the washed check, criminals obtain the account and routing numbers from the victim's checking account and print phony checks, using print stock that can be purchased at any office supply store.

Variano says that in addition to paying bills online, there are ways to help keep your account secure. "Know who you are giving your checks to," she says, "and treat checks like you do credit cards."

Many victims don't realize they've been ripped off until they receive either a bank statement or a past-due notice.

It only takes one bad decision to leave your wallet flatter than a flounder. Before you click on a link, sign a contract or accept any offers, be suspicious, ask for references and never agree to anything without thinking it over. Make it a nonnegotiable rule to discuss pending financial moves with someone you trust -- your lawyer, banker or even a savvy friend or relative.

Develop a protective layer of skepticism to make yourself a tougher target for cons.

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