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State Adds Ounces of Prevention

October 30, 2000|JERRY HICKS

Ever open up your mail to discover someone's sent you a check for 10 grand? Looks so real you want to just run out and cash it?

Yes, this money could be yours, the fine print says. All you have to do is sign up for a sweepstakes at a slight cost. And then, just maybe, you might be the person to win this check.

It's all a major rip-off, of course, designed to part you from your money. But now, the Legislature says enough is enough. Beginning Jan. 1, it will be illegal for such sweepstakes companies, or those offering bogus financial packages, to send these "simulated" checks through the mail.

Gov. Gray Davis recently signed an even score of bills designed to protect consumers from those up to such shenanigans.

"We want to make 2000 the year of the consumer," said Kim Hunt, spokeswoman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs. "These are all things that consumers have complained about to us."

Most take effect beginning 2001. But a series of bills designed to protect our privacy won't kick in until the following year.

The most important of those may be a new clearinghouse for privacy violation complaints, called the Office of Privacy Protection. It's where you can go if you discover that someone has managed to get hold of your Social Security or credit card numbers and has been misusing them.

"In this age of the Internet, such thievery is growing," Hunt said. "A lot of people don't have the nerve to take your credit card into a store and confront the danger of getting caught. But they'll think nothing of ordering things on your card numbers through the computer. It just takes a click."

The clearinghouse, Hunt said, makes it much easier for consumers to know where to go with such complaints.

One bill that Hunt believes will have an immediate effect sets up a form you can send to credit card companies to force them to stop sending your name and address to other companies, who then send you tons of junk, either in the mail or by e-mail.

Some of the other bills signed:

* An advisory team will be set up to try to better monitor rip-off hearing aid sales.

* A new Occupational Therapy board will oversee licensing of occupational therapists, to cut down on illegal businesses in that field.

* A pilot program has been set up to cut down on auto body repair fraud, estimated to be a $1-billion industry in California. The state already has an investigation unit. Hunt says this pilot program, however, will bolster that effort.

* From now on, car makers will have just two tries to fix a safety problem. After that, they must buy back the vehicle as a "lemon."

* Some car dealers who sell us faulty cars buy them back only on the condition that we have to keep quiet about the settlement we got. A new bill prevents the dealers from requiring such gag orders.

* Some auto repair shops will use cheaper, alternate parts to fix your vehicle, not something from the original manufacturer. A new bill makes it illegal for them to keep that information from you.

* In the security guard field, it may surprise you that security guards are allowed to begin work even before the paperwork has been processed to check their criminal backgrounds.

"We wind up with the fox guarding the henhouse," Hunt said.

A new bill prevents them from beginning work until they've been cleared.

Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to

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