Brochure helps N.Y. tourists avoid rip-off artists

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NEW YORK -- The good news is that this city is experiencing a tourism boom, thanks to more than 33 million visitors who took a bite out of the Big Apple in 1997, according to the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bad news is that the wave of tourists is leading to a rise in tourist scams, according to the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs.

"New York City is the retail capital of the world, offering the best selection of merchandise at the best prices," said Jules Polonetsky, the department's commissioner. "While most merchants obey the law, there are some rogue business owners who tarnish the shine of the Big Apple," Polonetsky added.

The rise in tourist complaints filed with the department prompted the organization to launch a campaign to protect visitors from unscrupulous merchants.

In conjunction with American Express, the department produced a brochure -- NYC Visitors' Consumer Tips -- written in 11 languages with advice to help steer tourists away from some of the most common scam practices. The brochures are available at hotels, tourist attractions and visitor centers throughout the five boroughs. "We've been inundated by calls from hotels telling us they want this," said a spokeswoman for the department.

According to the department, electronics stores in midtown Manhattan are the main culprits, in some cases charging tourists and out-of-town shoppers hundreds of dollars above the suggested retail price of merchandise. The department said the electronics stores rip off tourists by inflating prices, selling used merchandise as new and altering credit card receipts after the customer has left the store. The stores also tell customers that advertised items are out of stock and then try to sell them more expensive goods.

The department reported that since January it has received more than a dozen complaints about a scam aimed squarely at tourists: Electronics stores falsely told out-of-town shoppers they could get a sales tax refund at the airport before they leave the country. Unlike Europe and other countries where VAT is refunded to international visitors, all consumers must pay sales tax in New York.

According to the department, in one case, a woman filed a complaint from her home in England after being told by an airline representative that, despite what a salesperson told her, she could not be refunded the $315 sales tax paid for a $3,800 laptop computer. The department said it was able to mediate a settlement in which the store agreed to issue the woman a refund.

The department pointed out that it resolves 95% of all tourist complaints in favor of the consumer and urges customers who think they have been ripped off to call its complaint division at (212) 487-4444. Tourists can download a copy of the consumer tips and file a complaint with the department through its Web site, www.ci.nyc.ny.us/consumers.

Sample tips

NEW YORK -- The New York Department of Consumer Affairs and American Express offer the following tips to avoid tourist scams:

  • Use a credit card and save your receipts. Credit card companies will back you up if your merchandise is faulty, and, if the credit slip is altered, you can compare your bill with your receipt.
  • Know the store's refund policy. If there is no posted policy, you have the right to a full refund if you return the item within 20 days.
  • Know an item's manufacturer's suggested retail price before you shop. By law, stores must tell you the MSRP if they are charging above it.
  • Comparison-shop in more than one store before making any purchases.
  • Avoid shopping in stores where merchants ask you where you are from and how long you will be in town. "Salespeople may be setting you up for a scam on the premise that you won't be around long enough to complain," the department says.
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