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Book Reviews

The Consummate Consumer
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; Page C09

Elisabeth Leamy decided to write a how-to manual after people kept recognizing her on the street or at stores and approaching her for consumer advice.

"I realized they're hungry for this information," says Leamy, the consumer and senior investigative reporter at WTTG Fox 5 News, where she has worked for seven years.

In "The Savvy Consumer: How to Avoid Scams and Rip-offs That Cost You Time and Money" (Capital Books; $18.95), she tried to answer the questions consumers asked her most. She ended up writing 340 pages on 128 topics, ranging from alarm-system and carpet-cleaning rip-offs to mortgages and pyramid schemes.

Divided into category chapters such as "Cars, "Credit" and "Telephone," the book is structured in a page-to-topic ratio that enables readers to bone up pronto on a particular issue. Most topics include tips on recognizing the telltale signs, avoiding the problem and fighting back if you didn't.

Appraisal: This book arms people with solid advice from a consumer advocate who has grappled with unreliable products, unrepentant CEOs and unlawful scammers. Why should you never buy an automobile marked "For Sale" by the side of the road? (Unlicensed dealers buy used cars by volume or at auctions, then, to jack up profits, pose as a consumer selling his personal car. It's called "curbstoning.") Want to know the average lifespan of household appliances? (Freezers, 15 to 20 years; washers, 8 to 12 years; dishwashers, 5 to 12 years.) It's here. How to tell if a prepaid calling card is a deal or a dupe? That's in it, too.

"There's always another scam or scheme, and it's exhausting to keep up with these wickedly clever con artists," says Leamy, recalling one heartbreaking case several years ago in which a grandmotherly woman was victimized by a "reloading" scheme. First, "she was scammed by a telemarketer," Leamy says, "then another con artist posed as a lawyer and pretended he would help get her money back. Of course, he stole even more of her money. She lost her life savings."

Like bank-examiner stings and Nigerian letter scams, the reloading rip-off has been around a long time. "It kills me that I hear the same tales of woe over and over again," says Leamy. "It's so easy to avoid consumer problems by doing your homework upfront. But it's excruciatingly difficult to get your money back after the fact."

The book also tackles some widely accepted beliefs that are plain wrong. "Consumer myths continue to floor me," says Leamy. "So many people still believe they have three days to return a car once they buy it. Wrong! So many people believe the Better Business Bureau is the government agency that helps consumers. Wrong!"

Leamy's general message to consumers, reflected in almost every page: "Be the hunter, not the hunted!"

"In other words, don't do business with companies that come looking for you -- the carpet cleaner that slips a coupon under your door, the stockbroker who cold-calls you. Instead, get referrals, do a background check and do business with companies that you seek out."

"Boy do we all need this book now! It's not preachy. It's a good, fun read and it WILL save you money. And it's all organized so you can whip it out before the guy on the other end of the phone talks you into something.

There is an old joke - 'There is never time to do something right but there is always time to do it over.' With this little primer you can do it right - and save money - the first time around."

— Lea Thompson
Chief Consumer Correspondent
Dateline NBC

"Consumers face a confusing world of challenges, choices, and traps. Elisabeth Leamy offers valuable tips for avoiding scams, preventing heartache, and getting the most bang for the buck. With personal anecdotes, no-nonsense advice, and coverage of a wide variety of marketplace issues, Leamy offers any consumer the chance to become a Savvy Consumer."

— Carol McKay
Vice President, Communications
National Consumers League

"Elisabeth Leamy's hard-hitting book, The Savvy Consumer, is packed with practical advice and insights, delivered in a lively style. It will help consumers avoid wasting time and money on scams, rip-offs, and just plain lousy deals--with lots of guidance on how to do the job of consuming up front before the damage is done."

— Robert Krughoff
Consumers' CHECKBOOK magazine

"The Savvy Consumer is the must have book for consumers. Whether its buying a car, fixing up a home, or dealing with credit issues, Elisabeth Leamy's book presents the information consumers need in a very organized and informative fashion. Anyone reading this book is going to be a smarter consumer. Down to earth, very readable, and chock full of excellent information, it should be in everyone's library."

— Shirley Rooker
Call For Action

"For an easy to read --and even easier to digest-- road map to beating the odds of consumer traps, get The Savvy Consumer. From Cars to Credit, each Chapter gives shoppers --whether beginners or vets-- the essentials for avoiding mishaps and better yet, how to deal with them when they do happen. It's a unique source, all in one place, of information consumers can use every day."

— Jodie Bernstein
Former Director of Consumer Education
The Federal Trade Commission

"Breezy, conversational and informative. Ms. Leamy has taken the arcane and made it understandable. Her book helps consumers navigate the often foreboding world of refinancing a home, buying a car or deciding what charity to contribute to, and she has done it with the trained eye of someone who has spent years as a consumer advocate. Her book is a real contribution to the often befuddled consumer."

— Terence McElroy
Communications Director
Florida Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Services

Bravo! The Savvy Consumer is indeed an exceptional piece and …[provides]… a tremendous amount of information on each of the consumer topics covered. I look for comprehensive reference materials to gain an edge in my job as an investigator combating fraud against consumers and this book could serve as the text book and guide for the industry… [This] book will definitely be added to my arsenal.

…If consumers would read this book and practice the principles espoused and follow the detailed guidelines, the number of consumer complaints would be drastically reduced across the board. The info it gives is on target, presented in easy to understand everyday language, and shows some terrific insight as well. This will be recommended reading for anyone involved in consumer education, consumer affairs issues, and even those who just want to avoid the pain, hassle, and expense of being a victim.

— Bob E. Harris
Vice President
North American Consumer Protection Investigators

"Readable and informative. The format is commendable. Elisabeth Leamy doesn't force readers to take on the entire text, but makes it easy for them to pick and choose the relevant areas as their needs arise.
In reading the automotive sections, I was very surprised at how much The Savvy Consumer taught me -and I have dealt with automobile issues daily for almost a decade at AAA Mid-Atlantic… Since issues relating to auto purchase and repair are the top generator of consumer complaints in America, The Savvy Consumer provides an important reference -and critical information-that will aid motorists in navigating the minefields of automobile rip-offs -of which there are plenty!"

— Lon Anderson
AAA Mid-Atlantic

"Consumers work just as hard for the dollars they give to charity as for the
dollars they spend on goods and services. We applaud The Savvy Consumer's practical advice on making informed giving decisions. Our experience in charity evaluation shows it's important to be a savvy donor as well."

Art Taylor
President and CEO
BBB Wise Giving Alliance


Copyright 2004 Elisabeth Leamy