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Posts published in “Columnists – Ask The Attorney General”

Protecting teens from dating violence

by Gregg Abbott

Dating violence is far too common among teenagers across the nation. According to a recent survey, one in five teens who have been in a serious relationship say they have been hit, slapped or pushed by their partner. Even more disturbing: 30 percent of all murders involving females ages 15 to 19 are committed by their romantic interest.

This month, the Office of Attorney General (OAG) is joining with crime victim advocates across the country to observe the fourth annual National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week. The week-long observance is intended to educate teens about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. It is also intended to help adults and teens recognize when a friend or loved one is being abused.

The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline provides many tips for recognizing and responding to teen dating violence, as does its Web site, www.loveisrespect.org. Abuse most likely exists if teens’ dating partners:

• Look at them or act in ways that scare them

• Seem jealous or possessive

• Criticize them

• Try to control where they go, what they wear or what they do

• Text or IM them excessively

• Threaten to kill or hurt themselves or their partners if they leave

• Try to stop them from seeing or talking to friends and family

• Hit, slap, push or kick them

Young Texans who find themselves in abusive relationships should first consider talking to a friend or an adult about the situation. Anyone who does not feel safe should avoid being alone with their boyfriend or girlfriend.

Teenagers who have witnessed or experienced potential dating violence are encouraged to call the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at (866) 331-9474. The helpline offers realtime, one-on-one support 24 hours a day. Through the helpline, trained volunteers advise teenagers to recognize unhealthy behavior and explain how to leave abusive relationships in the safest way possible.

Parental involvement can be a powerful tool that prevents teen dating violence. By talking with their teenage children and staying aware of developments in their child’s life, parents can show that they care – and are approachable when problems arise. Setting boundaries and simultaneously entrusting kids to conduct themselves responsibly may feel like a balancing act, but it can really help protect teens from harmful relationships.

The OAG has long been involved in the fight against domestic violence. Recently, the OAG joined the Texas Council on Family Violence to launch the “LOVE” campaign, which was created to heighten public awareness about teen dating violence.

The OAG Web site, www.texasattorneygeneral.gov, contains information about victims’ rights, protective orders, and the OAG’s Address Confidentiality Program, which provides a post office box and mail forwarding at no charge to victims who want to prevent an abuser from knowing where to find them. Abuse victims seeking information about the OAG’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, which reimburses out-of-pocket expenses to victims of violent crime and their families, can also find it on the Web site.

All Texans have the right to live violence-free lives, but some may need help getting out of violent relationships. The OAG is committed to working with victim groups and others to ensure that Texas teenagers have access to the resources they need to end a dangerous or harmful relationship.

AG works with counties across Texas to help crime victims

Law enforcement officers are responsible for bringing criminals to justice. It’s our job. Yet, our duty “to serve and protect” also compels us to reach out to victims who are left battered and broken — physically, emotionally and often financially — in the wake of the violent crimes committed against them.

One of my great privileges as Attorney General is to partner with crime victim advocates across Texas who walk through the recovery process with crime victims in their communities. Many advocates are victim assistance coordinators (VACs) or crime victim liaisons (CVLs) who work for local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. These caring people help crime victims in their areas find counseling, emergency shelter, or funds to cover expenses they have incurred as a result of the crimes committed against them.

This year, my office awarded $29 million to 326 nonprofit and community groups across Texas that aid victims of crime. Of that amount, $2.3 million went to 64 district and county attorneys, sheriff’s offices and police departments to fund VAC and CVL positions. Last year’s funding enabled law enforcement and prosecutors to assist roughly 24,000 victims of crime and we hope to help even more this year.

Take the example of a 15-year-old girl in Lamb County who was sexually assaulted by a high school coach. During the trial preparation, the victim assistance coordinator in the Lamb County District Attorney’s office realized the girl was not ready to testify.

The VAC worked closely with the victim to make her feel more comfortable, taking her to see her counseler, visiting her at home, and accompanying her to the courthouse. The defendant pled guilty before the trial was to begin, but the sentencing phase may still require the victim’s testimony. If the girl is called to testify, she will be ready, thanks to the help and support of the Lamb County District Attorney’s VAC.

Crime victim grants are critical to help children who have been assaulted, women who have been abused, and other victims of violent crime get the medical attention, grief counseling, legal services and other assistance they need to put their lives back together.

Coordinators and liaisons also help victims by orienting them to the criminal justice system; accompanying them to appointments; notifying them of changes in offender status, investigative status or court events; assisting with crisis intervention; helping with restitution requests; and intervening with an employer on behalf of the victim. VACs and CVLs also provide training about victim rights to law enforcement and others in the community, and promote victim rights through the dissemination of public information.

The grants mentioned were made through my Crime Victim Services Division following a formal application and review process. The funding was approved by the 2005 Legislature and is provided through the state Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, which my office administers.

In addition to these crime victim grants, last year our Crime Victim Services Division provided more than $85 million from the Fund to directly help victims pay for medical and emergency out-of-pocket expenses and other costs associated with the crimes committed against them.

There is nothing we can do to fully erase the pain which violent crime inflicts. But I am pleased my office is able to work with crime victim advocates across the Lone Star State to help victims rebuild their lives.

Know your Tenant Rights

My office receives quite a few calls from tenants who have disputes with their landlords. The complaints range from issues of health and safety to non-return of security deposits and lack of peace and quiet.

The most important part of your relationship with your landlord is your rental agreement, which you should always obtain in written form. Be sure to read the lease carefully before you sign it. If you want to change a part of the lease, discuss it with the landlord. He or she may be willing to make changes to the contract.

Texas law provides you with additional protection. The laws states that you have the right to “quiet enjoyment.” If other tenants in your building are disturbing you, you should complain to the landlord. The landlord has a duty to see that you are protected from other tenants wrongful behavior.

Except under certain circumstances, a landlord may not interrupt utilities to a tenant unless the interruption results from bona fide repairs, construction, or an emergency.

You have a right to demand repairs when a condition affects your health and safety. Under Texas law, by renting you the property, the landlord guarantees that the unit will be a fit place to live. The landlord does not have a duty to pay for or make repairs if you or your guests cause an unsafe or unhealthy condition through negligence, carelessness, abuse or accident.

A dwelling must be equipped with security devices such as window latches and keyed dead bolt locks on exterior doors. These devices must be installed at the landlord’s expense. If such devices are missing or are defective, you have the right to request their installation or repair. The landlord must also provide smoke detectors.

If the landlord won’t make repairs needed to protect your health, safety or security, and you follow the procedures required by law, you may be entitled to end the lease or have the problem repaired and deduct the cost of the repair from the rent. You could also file suit to force the landlord to make the repairs.

Send the landlord a certified letter outlining the needed repairs. Be sure that your rent is current when the notice is received.

Your landlord should make a diligent effort to repair the problem within a reasonable time. The law presumes seven days to be a reasonable time. If the landlord has not made a diligent effort to complete the repair within seven days and you did not have the first notice letter delivered to your landlord via certified mail, return receipt requested, or via registered mail, you will need to send a second notice letter.

If you receive a notice to vacate from your landlord, you do not have to move out of the unit by the date indicated in the notice. If you decide to stay, the landlord can then file an eviction suit with a local justice of the peace.

The landlord still cannot remove the tenant or the tenant’s property without a court order, except in the case of abandonment or when exercising a landlord’s lien. For example for non-payment of rent. After the landlord files the eviction suit, the court clerk will send the eviction citation to the Constable’s office for service to the tenant.

If you receive a citation, you should review it carefully. It will outline your rights. You will then have the opportunity to go before the justice of the peace to tell your side of the story. You do not need an attorney present, but it may be advisable for you to consult with one. If you lose, you still have the right to appeal the decision.

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POINTS TO REMEMBER

Tenant Rights

Read the Attorney General’s brochure, Overview of Tenant Rights

www.oag.state.tx.us

The Austin Tenants’ Council and the State Bar of Texas provide additional information on tenants’ rights, including brochures. You can contact those organizations as follows:

Austin Tenants’ Council
1619 E. Cesar Chavez Street
Austin, TX 78702
(512) 474-1961
www.housing-rights.org

State Bar of Texas
P.O. Box 12487
Austin, TX 78711
(800) 204-2222
www.texasbar.com

Information on this and other topics is available on the Attorney General’s Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us.

New Year’s Resolution: Pay Your Child Support

As responsible parents, there is no better time than the start of the New Year to reflect on the example we are setting for our children. Although they may not tell us, children look to their mothers and fathers to provide the love and support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

Parents without custody also have the opportunity to influence their children’s growth and development in many positive ways. There is no more compelling evidence of parental concern for a child’s welfare than the regular payment of child support.

It is common knowledge that child support payments cover a child’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, healthcare, and clothing. However, the benefits extend beyond the financial security that each payment provides. Research shows that the children of parents who pay their child support have fewer behavior problems, make better grades, and stay in school longer than children who do not receive regular support.

Parents who pay child support are also more likely to “be there” emotionally for their children, and take an active role in their upbringing. Children with two involved and caring parents are more confident, more likely to exercise self-control, and less likely to engage in risky behaviors that result in drug usage and early pregnancies.

For the state fiscal year that ended August 31, my office collected a record $1.67 billion in child support, topping the previous year’s total by $111 million. This phenomenal achievement was made possible by thousands of Texas parents who faithfully pay court-ordered child support every month without reminders.

For parents who need extra encouragement, it is my hope that the beginning of the New year will renew their commitment to provide for their children, and pay their child support. Pleas show your children that you care about their welfare by making regular child support payments throughout 2005.

To help parents collect child support, the Attorney General’s Office accepts applications from mothers, fathers and other individuals who request our services. Applications can be obtained by visiting Child Support Interactive on the main Attorney General Web site www.oag.state.tx.us or by calling our 24-hour voice response system at (800) 252-8014. Parents who receive financial assistance through the Health and Human Services Commission automatically receive child support services.

POINTS TO REMEMBER
Children Who Receive Child Support:
• Have better health and nutrition
• Have fewer behavior problems
• Make better grades

The Attorney General Will Help You:
• Locate a noncustodial parent;
• Establish your child’s paternity;
• Establish and enforce child support orders
• Review and adjust child support payment; and
• Collect and distribute child support payments

Apply for child support services by:

Visiting Child Support Interactive on the main Attorney General Web site www.oag.state.tx.us
Calling the 24-hour voice response system at (800) 252-8014

Information on this and other topics is available on the Attorney General’s Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us.

Regular child support improves school achievement

There is no more important time than the beginning of the school year to remind parents of the importance of making regular child support payments.

It is common knowledge that children depend on child support to provide basic needs like food, shelter, health care, and back-to-school clothing. However, research shows that children who receive regular child support derive more benefits than the financial security that each payment provides. The children of parents who pay their child support have fewer behavior problems, make better grades, and stay in school longer than children who do not receive regular support.

In most instances, non-custodial parents are ordered to pay child support for their children who live in a separate household. But a parent’s contribution to a child’s well being goes beyond the financial assistance the parent is required to provide. Parents who pay child support are much more likely to take an active role in raising their children. Children with two involved and caring parents are more self-confident, more likely to exercise self control, and less likely to engage in risky behaviors that result in drug usage and early pregnancies.

I am thankful that most parents faithfully pay court-ordered child support every month without reminders. For parents who need extra encouragement, it is my hope that the new school year will renew their commitment to do the right thing and pay their child support. All children deserve the security that comes from knowing their parents care enough to make regular child support payments.

Parents who need child support services can contact the Child Support Division of my office for assistance. We will help you:

-Locate a non-custodial parent;
-Establish your child’s paternity;
-Establish and enforce child support orders;
-Establish and enforce medical support orders;
-Review and adjust child support payments; and
-Collect and distribute child support payments.

To help parents collect child support, the Attorney General’s Office accepts applications from mothers, fathers and other individuals who request our services. Customers can apply for services by calling our 24-hour voice response system at (800) 252-8014 or by visiting Child Support Interactive on the main Attorney General Web site www.oag. state.tx.us. Parents who receive financial assistance through the Texas Department of Human Services automatically receive child support services.

For the state fiscal year that ended August 31, 2003, the Child Support Division collected a record $1.5 billion in child support. Although the final tally is not in, we are set to break last year’s collection record for State Fiscal Year 2004 that ends this month.

I will not be satisfied until all our children receive the financial and medical support their parents are ordered to provide. As your Attorney General, you have my commitment to work tirelessly on behalf of Texas children to collect the support they need to lead healthy and productive lives.

POINTS TO REMEMBER ABOUT CHILD SUPPORT

Children Who Receive Child Support:
-Have better health and nutrition
-Have fewer behavior problems
-Make better grades

The Attorney General Will Help You:
-Locate a non-custodial parent;
-Establish your child’s paternity;
-Establish and enforce child support orders;
-Establish and enforce medical support orders;
-Review and adjust child support payments; and
-Collect and distribute child support payments.

Apply for Child Support Services by:
-Visiting Child Support Interactive on the main Attorney General Web site www.oag.state.tx.us
-Calling the 24-hour voice response system at (800) 252-8014

Information on this and other topics is available on the Attorney General’s Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us.

Break the Silence – Make the Call

Domestic violence is a crime that all too often goes unreported. Many victims of domestic abuse suffer in silence, too afraid to speak out. That is why all Texans should take a more active role in combating domestic violence, especially when the victim is a loved one.

A study on domestic violence in Texas by my office and the Texas Council on Family Violence (TCFV) found that among Texans who identified themselves or a family member as a victim of domestic abuse, 35 percent said they did nothing to stop it or report it.

Looking the other way can be devastating. Last year alone, one hundred forty women were killed during acts of family violence in Texas, according to figures from the Texas Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement. That is more than two deaths per week.

Due to these alarming statistics my office and the Texas Council on Family Violence joined together to raise public awareness about this important issue. “Break the Silence – Make the Call” is a campaign financed in part by a $2 million grant from the Attorney General’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund.

The first phase, “Break the Silence,” began in 2002. We initiated the second phase of the campaign, “Make the Call,” with press conferences in Austin, Houston and Dallas this summer. Make the Call is not only aimed at victims of family abuse, but also their friends and relatives. Many times victims are unwilling or unable to reach out for help on their own. They need our support and encouragement. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (800) 799-7233 provides advice on how to approach victims of family violence.

I was joined at the press conferences by three courageous survivors of domestic violence. The survivors’ stories were similar: they suffered years of physical and verbal abuse by their spouse or partner and were unable to break the cycle of violence on their own. Intervention by their friends and loved ones finally gave them the courage to leave their abusive relationships and seek shelter.

My office provides benefits for victims of domestic abuse through the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. This program is paid for out of court fees incurred by those who break the law, at no expense to taxpayers. The Crime Victims’ Compensation program acts as a payer of last resort to cover expenses associated with violent crimes against people. Benefits may cover medical expenses, counseling, lost wages and, in some cases, travel.

Certain eligibility criteria apply. Some of the benefits available to crime victims are of particular value in cases of family violence. For example, some funds are available to help pay the cost of relocation when domestic abuse victims are trying to move away from the abuser. Help with relocation costs are also available to victims who have been sexually assaulted in their homes.

Every law enforcement agency in Texas is required to provide victims of crime with information about the Crime Victims’ Compensation program and an application. Applications are also available from prosecutors’ offices.

Their victim assistance coordinators may assist victims in completing the form or may provide referrals for further assistance. Hospitals and medical centers may also have applications. You can also contact my office directly for an application.

Remember, you can help “Break the Silence-Make the Call.”

Charitable Raffles: Know the Law

By Greg Abbott

My office receives numerous calls from Texans across the state who are hoping to raise money for a good cause. Many Texans decide they want to do a raffle. But is it legal to raise funds with a raffle?

It depends. The Charitable Raffle Enabling Act which has been in effect since September 1, 1999, establishes the guidelines for conducting a legal raffle in the State of Texas. The Act was established to provide certain charitable and non-profit membership organizations a means to generate income to support their causes.

The Act defines the types of organizations that can hold raffles. In general a qualified organization is defined as:

An association organized primarily for religious purposes that has been in existence in Texas for at least ten years.

A voluntary emergency medical service that does not pay its members other than nominal compensation.
A volunteer fire department that operates fire fighting equipment and does not pay it members other than nominal compensation.

Other organizations may qualify. You can hold a raffle if your non-profit organization:
-is at least three years old;
-elects its governing body;
-has a 501(c) tax exemption;
-has members;
-does not distribute income to its members; and
-does not participate in any political campaign.
These are the ONLY organizations allowed to hold raffles in Texas. Any other type of organization, business or individual conducting a raffle in Texas would be doing so illegally. The law also regulates what types of prizes may be offered. Qualified organizations may offer any prize except money. There is no value limit on prizes donated to the organization. However, if raffle organizers offer a prize they have bought or given other consideration for, the value of the prize may not exceed $50,000.

There are a few other restrictions. For example, a qualified organization may only hold two raffles per year. Raffle tickets may not be advertised state wide or through paid advertisements. Each ticket must provide the name and address of the organization holding the raffle or the address of an officer of the organization. Tickets may only be sold by members of the organization. Additionally, the ticket must include the price of the ticket and a general description of each prize that has a value of more than $10.

A raffle that violates the Charitable Raffle Enabling Act is considered illegal gambling under the Texas Penal Code. Conducting an illegal raffle is a Class A misdemeanor and participation is a Class C misdemeanor.

My office would not be permitted to advise you about whether your particular organization, or any particular proposed raffle, would be legal. We can only provide these general guidelines. If you have doubts about the legality of a raffle, consult a private attorney.

For information on conducting a legal raffle in Texas, read Chapter 2002, Charitable Raffles, Occupations Code, Texas Codes Annotated. We also offer an online brochure on charitable raffles that can be found on our Web site at www.oag. state.tx.us.

POINTS TO REMEMBER
CHARITABLE RAFFLES

Registration and Taxation requirements for nonprofit organizations in Texas:
Secretary of State
Post Office Box 12697
Austin, TX 78711
(800) 648-9642
www.sos.state.tx.us

Comptroller of Public Accounts
Post Office Box 13528
Austin, TX 78711
(800) 463-4600
www.cpa.state.tx.us

For a copy of the Charitable Raffle Enabling Act:
Texas Legislature Online
www.capitol.state.tx.us
State Law Library
(512) 463-2178

Online brochure:
Charitable Raffles
www.oag.state.tx.us
or call for a free copy:
800 252-8011

Information on this and other topics is available on the Attorney General’s Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us.

Beware of Suspicious Calls

Q: My mother, who is elderly, told me she recently received a call from someone at your office informing her that you had gotten a settlement from a sweepstakes company and that she was due a refund of $500. The catch was that she had to pay $295 up front in legal and processing fees.

In addition, she doesn’t remember filing a complaint with your office. The caller tried to get her credit card number from her. She refused to give it to the caller. Did your office really call her?

A: I can say, without hesitation, that no one from the Office of the Attorney General called your mother. I am very glad to hear that she refused to give the caller her credit card information. Otherwise, she might have lost a lot more than the $295 the caller was asking for.

The Office of the Attorney General does take action against businesses that violate the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. However, any legal action taken by this office is on behalf of the State of Texas, not private individuals.

In some cases, we receive restitution for individual consumers. But our notifications are always in writing. And we would never require a consumer to pay legal or processing fees. Your mother escaped being the victim of a scam.

Unfortunately, we get many calls from concerned citizens whose elderly parents have fallen prey to unscrupulous telemarketers or all-out con artists. And once a person says yes to one con artist or telemarketer, his or her name and number end up being sold on call lists to hundreds of others. It begins a vicious cycle that has left far too many senior citizens destitute and afraid to tell their families about what has happened.

Some tips everyone should remember when dealing with telemarketers:

•Never give your credit card or bank account information over the phone unless you know with whom you are dealing. This is especially true if the person called you. If you think the offer is legitimate, ask the caller to send you the information in writing, with a company name, address and contact number. A legitimate company or charity will have no problem providing this information.

•Watch out for high pressure sales pitches over the phone. Some telemarketers try to sell you something for a great price that is only available if you act now. A good deal should be available for longer than 15 minutes.

•Hang up! If the caller won’t take no for an answer, hang up the phone. It is your phone, after all, and the caller is taking up your time.

You can report suspicious calls to the Consumer Protection Division (CPD) of my office. There is an online complaint form available on our Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us. You can also request a CPD complaint form by calling us at (800) 252-8014 or file a complaint with the Public Utility Commission through its Web site at www.puc.state.tx.us.

Discount Travel Club Scams

Q: I recently joined an organization that promised me I would receive travel agent discounts on my airfare, hotel reservations, car rental and cruise prices. I paid a lot of money for my travel agent card. The company also told me I would get a commission on every trip I booked for my friends and family. So far, not one hotel or airline has accepted my travel agent card, and I haven’t seen a dime of commission. Have I been had?

A: Unfortunately, the answer may be yes. My office, along with several attorneys general from other states, recently filed suit and gained a settlement from one of these discount travel groups. We have heard from many consumers who filed complaints similar to yours. The situation you describe is a common one. Consumers pay a fee, sometimes several thousand dollars, to join a discount travel club and receive “travel agent” credentials. The company promises members that their travel agent card earns them access to travel agent discounts on airfare and hotels that are not available to the public. In addition, members are offered commissions on trips booked for family and friends through this company.

However, when a member tries to book a trip for a friend or family member, he or she soon discovers that the fares offered by the company are higher than those offered directly through the airline or through a travel agent. And when the consumer tries to use the travel agent card to get discounts and upgrades, the airlines and hotels refuse to accept it.

The truth is that each airline, hotel, or rental car company decides which discounts to give and to whom. No travel club can guarantee you travel agent discounts. To be eligible for travel agent discounts, most airlines and major hotels require proof that you actually work as a travel agent for a set number of hours each month.

Another common scam is an offer for a free trip in exchange for listening to a sales pitch – often for a time share company or a travel club. People go with the best of intentions, promising themselves that they will not buy anything or sign any contracts. But the high pressure sales pitches can be too much. Even if consumers don’t succumb to the sales pitch, they can end up with a “free” trip that isn’t what was advertised.

A consumer may get a certificate with instructions for redeeming it. But when the person calls to book a trip, the date may not be available unless an upgrade fee is paid. There may also be fine print about the consumer being responsible for all port taxes and transfer fees, or a clause that may specify that airfare is not included.

My office also receives complaints about travel clubs that claim to provide consumers with exclusive access to special trips. Again, the trips offered may not be what you actually get. We have heard from consumers who arrived at their dream vacation spot only to have the hotel room be a flea-trap. They have to upgrade or change hotels, but can’t get in touch with the travel club to make arrangements. We have also heard complaints about a promised luxury cruise to the Bahamas turning out to be a six-hour ride on a ferry with no private cabins. In any case, the traveler is stuck in a foreign country with no access to someone at the travel club who can fix the arrangements.

When you make travel plans, you should consider working directly with the airline or cruise company or with an established, registered travel agent. Make sure to read the fine print on every contract you sign. Don’t let the high pressure sales tactics get to you. Any offer that is only good for one day is probably a scam. The con artists are pros, and they will say anything to get you to sign on the dotted line.

If you would like to file a complaint against a travel club or company, you can do so through my office. A consumer complaint form is available online through our Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us. You can also request a form by calling (800) 621-0508.

Foreign Lottery Scams

Q: Recently, I received a phone call telling me I won a Canadian sweepstakes. The caller said that he needed my credit card number for verification purposes but that I would not be charged. I just received my bill, and there is a $300 charge I don’t recognize. And I never received my prize. Is there something I can do to get my money?

A: Unfortunately, you are probably never going to get your prize money. Foreign lottery offers are a common scam. The Consumer Protection Division in my office receives an increasing number of complaints about this type of scam every year. The pitch that you describe is typical of the Canadian Lottery scam, with a twist. The lottery scam usually begins with a call from an enthusiastic and convincing telemarketer who informs you that you have won the Canadian Lottery. In some cases, the caller will tell you that to claim your prize, you need to wire him money for taxes. Instead, you never see your money again, and the prize never arrives. In a similar version of the scam, the caller asks for your bank account number so that the prize can be deposited directly. Instead, the con artists clean out your bank account.

With the ease and convenience allowed by the Internet, the con artists are finding new ways to steal money from unsuspecting victims. There are companies who offer credit card payment services for online merchants. When you purchase something on the Internet,

you often do so through these third-party billing companies. They collect the payment from the credit card company and forward it to the merchant you originally did business with. The vast majority of these billing companies are honest businesses that provide valuable services to merchants and consumers. However, when you do purchase items over the Internet, make sure you are dealing with a well established company that offers secure billing procedures.

Unfortunately, con artists are using these third-party billing companies to run their scams. As you describe, the telemarketer asks for your credit card number for verification purposes. Of course, he promises that you will not be billed. Instead, he takes your information and uses it to submit a charge to a third-party billing company, which sends the payment to him. The con artist gets your money, and you get nothing but an unexpected bill.

So what can you do? Challenge the charge with your credit card company. They may opt to investigate the charge and take action. If they don’t, you can file a consumer complaint through my office by calling 800-621-0508 to request a complaint form. You can also fill out a form online through our Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us.

You can protect yourself from falling prey to unscrupulous telemarketers in the future. If someone calls and tells you that you have won the Canadian Lottery or a sweepstakes you never entered, HANG UP. Never give out your credit card or bank account information to someone who calls you. Many consumers who lose money through this type of scam are revictimized by so-called “recovery center” scams. Victims who have lost money are contacted by an organization that claims it can recover the money they lost, but there is a small fee. These recovery centers are usually run by the very same people who stole the money in the first place.

Through an organization called Project PhoneBusters, Canadian law enforcement officials are working to combat these scams. You can report this scam to PhoneBusters by calling 888-495-8501 or by sending an e-mail to info@phonebusters.com.

There is more information on this type of scam on the organization’s Web site at www.phonebusters.com.

Homeowners’ Associations

Q:I got behind in paying my dues to the homeowners’ association where I live. Now they are threatening to foreclose on my house. Does the law protect me from this?

A:Many subdivisions have homeowners’ associations. Among other things, these organizations collect dues to pay for management of common areas and set the rules for property use and upkeep that association members must follow. Homeowners’ associations generally have the authority to enforce association rules and property covenants, including the power to foreclose on a property.

Last year, the Legislature passed SB 507, the Texas Residential Property Owners Protection Act, which gives homeowners new protections when dealing with property owners’ associations. This law applies to all residential subdivisions where the property owners’ association has the power to collect fees or dues and where most or all of the property owners in the subdivision are required to join the organization. The law does not apply to condominium developments. Under SB 507, a property owners’ association may not foreclose on a lien when the debt owed consists solely of fines assessed by the association or attorney’s fees associated with those fines. If an association does foreclose on a property for other reasons and sells it at auction, the former owner will have 180 days to reclaim the property.

To do this, the former owner must repay all of the outstanding property assessments, foreclosure costs, interest and other fees owed to the association, minus the amount the association received from the foreclosure sale. The former owner must also pay the new owner the purchase price of the property and the taxes, interest and fees paid by the new owner after the foreclosure.
After an auction sale, the new owner may not resell the property until the 180-day period has expired.

Q:The homeowners’ association wants to restrict my right to use the neighborhood pool. Can they do this?

A:Homeowners’ associa-tions generally have the power to enforce their rules. However, under SB 507, the association must now give written notice before suspending a homeowner’s right to use common areas, assessing charges for property damage or assessing a fine for violation of association rules. In most circumstances, the owner will have the right to request a hearing on the issue and must be given a reasonable amount of time to fix the violation. If the association sues a homeowner and foreclosure is not involved, either side may request mediation of the dispute.

Q:I’ve tried without success to work with my homeowners’ association to resolve our differences. They won’t even let me look at the minutes from the last association board meeting, when my problem was discussed. Can the Attorney General help me?

A:Most homeowners’ associations are required to follow the rules and procedures laid out in the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. Under SB 507, these associations will also be required to make their books and records, including financial records, reasonably available to members. In addition, each association must now file a management certificate with the county.

While we do enforce the terms of the Public Information Act, the administrative policies and procedures of property owners’ associations are not subject to review by my office. Therefore, you should consult a private attorney about your situation. The Open Meetings Act is enforced by the district attorneys of the state. Questions or concerns about the conduct of an association meeting should be addressed to your local prosecutor.