Miami Herald (Sunday)

In real estate, a sucker’s born every minute. How to make sure it’s not you


I’ve decided to put my 50plus years of writing about the housing business to work by offering my faithful readers a free online seminar on how to get rich in real estate without hardly trying. Once you enroll, though, I will work hard to sell you more “advanced” courses and a bunch of workbooks I’ve created.

I will offer to be on call 24/7 for advice. And maybe I’ll peddle some extra-advanced classes as the weeks go by. Just to show you how successful

I’ve been, I’ll show you some pictures of me and some young hottie standing in front of “my” Rolls-Royce, which I’ve really just rented, plus a shot of me on the bridge of “my” yacht — also borrowed — wearing the obligatory captain’s hat.

In truth, I don’t even own a canoe, and I drive a sensible four-door. Yes, what I’m concocting is a scam, just like the dozens of others offered on late-night TV by a bunch of charlatans who want to separate you from your hardearned cash.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, most individual­s looking to make a quick killing via these real estate programs end up losing thousands. “The payoff doesn’t match the promise,” the consumer watchdog agency says. In fact, “most people never get back the money they invested.”

Yes, but how about those people who claim they took the classes and bought the books, then made millions? Look, they’re sitting on yachts and driving expensive cars, too! Unfortunat­ely, it just ain’t so. These kinds of claims “aren’t reliable,” the FTC warns. “Real estate investment scams often use fake testimonia­ls and pay people to endorse their programs.”

These rip-off artists — and it is an art — often start with a free seminar. But once you’re in attendance, the leader will offer their “proven” investment tricks — tricks that only they know, guaranteed to make you rich beyond your wildest dreams — for hundreds of dollars you never expected to spend. Let the arm-twisting begin!

But the real tricks are the lies they tell you. Beware of these over-the-top claims: You can earn big money fast, regardless of your experience or training; the deal is a sure thing; you can work part-time, just a few hours a week; you’ll be coached to success every step of the way. They just ain’t so!

Many people who try these hucksters’ programs end up complainin­g to the authoritie­s. That could mean the FTC, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Better Business Bureau or their state and local consumer affairs agencies. If you’re still considerin­g such a program, please start by making sure it’s on the up-and-up. The promoter will have a history, good or bad, so check the agencies above — and any others you can think of — to determine how other customers have fared.

Look for published informatio­n about the company. Search online for the company name plus words like “review,” “scam” or “complaint.” And make sure you look through several pages of search results.

The same goes for those outfits that claim they can remove negative items from your credit records or get you out of that timeshare you never use. I don’t know about you, but I receive one or two emails a day from bogus enterprise­s pitching these and other scams. Check them out thoroughly before taking the bait.

Just last month, the FTC shut down an outfit that “targeted Spanish-speaking consumers with brazen and false moneymakin­g pitches” for online real estate investment­s. And the agency launched a claims process for consumers harmed by a deceptive mortgage relief operation that collected thousands in upfront fees, but failed to deliver on its promise of lower monthly payments.

Another firm recently settled with the CFPB over charges that it illegally collected advance fees for credit repair services via its telemarket­ing operation. Yet I still receive the company’s emails. The latest one said the service “makes it simple for you to work towards improving your credit.”

Yeah? Well, if it’s so simple, I’ll just do it myself. And so should you!

I also get a call a week from someone who wants to help me sell the timeshare I don’t own. Never have and likely never will, though I’ve visited a couple. That’s probably why I get the calls. At great personal sacrifice, I’ve attended several timeshare presentati­ons — one of which was even enjoyable — so I could inform my readers about the concept of sharing ownership in a vacation apartment.

The worst part of the presentati­ons was the pressure at the end of the sessions. Even when they were told I was a reporter who had no interest other than as a journalist, the arm-twisting didn’t stop.

The tricks are endless and deliberate. Salespeopl­e sometimes make you wait between parts of the meeting, and you may have to meet with several of them, including the “manager.” They tell you the offer is only available now, and won’t be there tomorrow, to make you act quickly. They hope that by the end of the presentati­on, you’ll be so exhausted that you’ll sign anything just to get out of there.

But don’t bend. Timeshares don’t come cheap, and the annual fees can be burdensome, so research the company before you even attend a presentati­on. Ask why that offer is only available today. Read and study what you are being asked to sign. Ask about your ability to cancel the deal.

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