Most advice about how to avoid specific scams, hidden fees and other "gotchas" has a flaw: It's often out of date as soon as it's given.
Scam artists and consumer-gouging companies are just too creative, regularly coming up with brand-new ways to get you, notes MSNBC columnist Bob Sullivan, the author of "Stop Getting Ripped Off: Why Consumers Get Screwed, and How You Can Always Get a Fair Deal."
So Bob and I decided that instead of giving you more advice, we'd teach you how to think about any given deal, so you can find the catch and decide whether you want to proceed.
Here are some questions to ask that can help you start looking for the catch:
1. What's the motive?Nobody's in business to lose money or to give away products or services out of the goodness of their hearts. Knowing what they're really up to can make you a savvier consumer.
If you're being offered a discount on a service, for example, the company probably hopes you'll keep it and pay the higher regular price when your introductory period expires. The seller is counting on your inertia. You can still take advantage of the discount, but make sure to note the offer's expiration date on your calendar so you can call and ask for an extension or start looking for a replacement. You also should carefully review the first bill you get to make sure no hidden charges have been tacked on.
If you're being offered an especially deep discount, including "free" anything, be particularly wary. An offer of free shipping may be a legitimate tactic to convert you into a fan of the retailer, or it may disguise the fact that returns are on your own dime or not allowed. In many cases, "free" isn't free at all but is instead a lure for something expensive. Example: free credit score offers that require signing up for $15-a-month credit monitoring service.
Similarly, a retailer may offer deep discounts to clear the way for new inventory. Or it may be dumping products that are obsolete or easily broken, or that had poor reviews. A quick search on the item with the word "review" attached should give you a good idea whether you'd be getting a real bargain or just a hot potato.
Sometimes the motive requires more digging to discern. What if you're being offered a product for free because the company says your positive word of mouth will help build its brand? That's hardly a smart business strategy; you can't lose money on every sale and make it up on the volume, as the old joke goes. What's more likely is that the business has found some other way to take your money.
If you have to give a debit or credit card number to get the "deal," for example, put on the brakes. The company may say it's for shipping costs, but it may use those numbers to make other, unauthorized charges. If the purpose is really to build the brand, the company won't mind taking a money order instead.