For many people, spreading holiday cheer includes making donations to charity.
But county consumer protection officials are warning residents to be wary of telephone and e-mail solicitations, particularly during a holiday season riddled with economic woes.
"Certainly the holiday season brings out people who want to take advantage of people's generosity," said Rebecca Bowman, Office of Consumer Affairs administrator. "And I think in hard economic times, it's not uncommon to see solicitations aimed at people who may be in trouble."
The county announced this week that it issued a cease-and-desist order to M&S; Financial, a Virginia-based mortgage company that is not licensed as a mortgage or consumer loan lender in Maryland, according to the Maryland Division of Financial Regulation. The company contacted several county employees through an automated dialing system in the past couple of weeks that left prerecorded messages, according to county officials. The solicitation offered reduced-rate mortgage loans.
In Maryland, it is illegal for businesses to offer or provide such loans without a license from the state Division of Financial Regulation. Marylanders can check to see whether a loan company, for example, is licensed by contacting the division.
"It is especially important, in these tough financial times, for consumers to make sure they are dealing with lenders who are licensed in the state," County Executive Ken Ulman said in a statement. "If our Office of Consumer Affairs finds that unlicensed lenders work here, we will take whatever action is necessary to make sure that those lenders are stopped unless or until they obtain the necessary license."
County residents have been victimized recently by similar scams. In one current case, two elderly Ellicott City women claim that they were evicted from their homes after receiving e-mail messages offering to refinance their loans. Instead, the women sold the houses for no money in return, started renting their own homes and couldn't afford to pay the rent, their lawyers contend.
During the holidays, many charitable organizations also call or e-mail to request donations. But Bowman said that residents should always verify that the person soliciting the donation is legitimate.
"Don't just assume that the person calling you on the phone or sending you an e-mail is who they claim to be," Bowman said, adding that anyone considering making a donation should research the organization, then call to verify that it is, in fact, collecting money.
Consumers can also protect themselves by registering their phone number with the federal "Do Not Call" registry. That can prevent businesses from making phone solicitations to the registered number. If a company calls and a consumer asks the telemarketer not to call back, the company is breaking the law if it does so anyway, according to the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In addition, the federal government has implemented other consumer protections. Since Dec. 1, prerecorded solicitations must allow consumers to opt out of future calls by pressing a key on their phone at the beginning of the call. The rule only applies to businesses trying to sell, but not prerecorded messages from charities, businesses regulated by other agencies and political messages.
Starting in September, the Federal Trade Commission will ban prerecorded telemarketing sales calls, unless a consumer agrees in writing to accept them.
"I think everybody has to be vigilant about calls they get soliciting sales over the phone or e-mails they get soliciting things over the Internet," Bowman said.
* Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs
* Maryland Division of Financial Regulation
* National "Do Not Call" List
* Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Protection Bureau