Before signing a contract, making a big purchase, or doing other business with a company, take some time to research the company to see if it’s legitimate. While there is no one-stop shop for checking out companies or surefire way of avoiding scams, here are some steps you can take:
Search online for customer feedback, complaints, and other information. Search online to find information, customer reviews, and complaints about the company. Type in the name of the company for general information, as well as the name of the company with the word “reviews,” “scam,” “lawsuit,” or similar terms. Don’t just rely on customer feedback and testimonials that the company itself provides you or that is on its website—make sure you look at other websites as well. Because not all websites are equal (or legitimate), it’s a good idea to review information from several different websites.
You can also look up the company to review consumer complaints on the Better Business Bureau by searching for where the company is located or doing business. But don’t assume the company is legitimate just because it has few complaints.
The Attorney General’s Office does not release information about consumer complaints it receives about companies and cannot comment on the legitimacy of a particular company. As a law-enforcement agency, the Office uses consumer complaints it receives to learn about misconduct and to determine what investigations and other actions to take to serve the interest of the general public.
Check any licenses and registrations the company must have. Contractors, doctors, lawyers, brokers, and many others cannot do business without a valid license or being registered with a government agency or industry organization. Check online to see what licenses and registrations the company must have and what agencies and organizations to contact for verification. Then check those agencies and organizations to confirm that the company has a valid license or registration and to see whether any disciplinary actions or other actions have been taken against it. Be aware, though, that even if these things check out, it doesn’t mean that a company is trouble-free.
Make sure the company has a legitimate physical address, phone number, and website. Check out the company’s address, phone number, and website to make sure they look legitimate. Be aware, though, that it’s pretty easy for a company to get a fake address, phone number, and website. If you can, visit the company’s physical address and talk to the people who work there. If you can’t visit, at least search the address online to make sure it’s not an empty parking lot or a different business. Call the company’s phone number to make sure someone answers or calls you back and that it’s not an anonymous call center.
Ask the company questions. Ask the company questions about its product and how it does business. Ask for a business statement that includes what the company does, how long it’s been in business, all its locations, its owners, and a description of its organizational structure. If applicable, ask to see prior work it has done and for a list of references, including companies from which the company buys materials and distributors or customers to whom the company sells its products or services.
If you are thinking about investing in a company, ask for a stock portfolio or income statement, as well as other financial statements that will give you information about the company’s assets, liabilities, and financial health. Search the internet for information about the company’s performance and conduct. If the company is publicly traded, review its public regulatory filings.
See what payment methods the company accepts. Be wary of companies that require cash or check, or require access to your bank account, for big purchases. It is generally safer to pay through credit card, PayPal, or other methods that allow you to get your money back without depending on the company, so it may be suspicious if the company doesn’t accept those methods. Don’t depend solely on a company’s “money-back guarantee,” since some shady businesses don’t follow through on those guarantees or set up a lot of obstacles to getting refunds.
Get everything in writing and be careful about what you sign. Make sure you get the company’s promises in writing, including cancellation and refund policies, and make sure you review those policies carefully. Don’t sign anything you haven’t read or that has blank spaces that will be filled in later.