Summer is travel season for many of us. Utica area artists, particularly musicians and other performing artists, may be heading out on the road to perform at festivals and events in other cities, while those of us who only work locally might be on our way to conferences, workshops, or other business trips for our second job or day job. And although everything is far from affordable right now, there must be at least a few of us who just plain need a vacation.
One group of people who are sadly not taking a vacation are scammers. They remain hard at work, and focused on our professional and personal travel plans. Here are just a few of the travel scams on the rise for summer 2022, and how to spot them.
The rental of your scammer’s dreams.
One of the most basic scams out there involves tricking people into paying money for something that does not exist. The scam unfolds as you might expect. You’re looking for a place to stay, and come across the perfect hotel, lodge, cabin, or suite. You quickly message the person offering the rental, send them your money, and cross “find a place to stay” off your list. Everything goes according to plan. Everything goes according to plan until you drive up to the place, hoping to put your stuff away and rest for a bit before exploring your destination. The address you were given turns out to belong to an empty lot, or a Walmart, or a complete stranger’s house or the back alley behind a garage. Calls, texts, and other messages to the person you rented from go unanswered. Your money is gone, and you have nowhere to stay.
Anyone traveling to someplace completely unfamiliar may want to visit a local travel agent with expertise in booking travel and arranging lodging. If you are going someplace you are reasonably familiar with, such as a neighboring state or a city you have visited in the past, refuse to book travel anywhere but a reputable travel website. No legitimate renter is ever going to ask you to leave an established site like Travelocity, Expedia, or AirBnB dot com and make a payment someplace else.
Carefully check reviews before you book. A place that has no reviews may be a fake listing that was recently posted. While nobody has the time to read through multiple pages of reviews, take the time to read a few, noting not just problems, but word choice. Beware of multiple reviews that use the same words or phrases. They were likely written by the scammers themselves.
Finally, take a close look at the photos. Pictures that are grainy, out of focus, or of odd things such as corners and blank walls were likely taken at a random spot. Scan the pictures for details that do not match the listed location. If you aren't sure if there are palm trees where you're headed, or if that chain restaurant in the background exists in that city, do some online research or talk to a trusted friend who knows the area.
The interesting story that paid off…for a scammer.
While most scammers have embraced technology, there are still those who run old-fashioned, in person scams. The situation begins with something that looks like it will just be one of those everyday mishaps or misunderstandings that make for an interesting story to tell once you get back home. Someone spills something on you, and insists upon helping you clean your shirt or your bag. Or they bump into you and feel so terrible about it, they begin apologizing so profusely, it draws a crowd. Maybe they stopped you mid stroll down the street, talked you into signing their petition, and made such a scene about donating to the cause, you gave them some money just to get away.
None of these scenarios are coincidences. These are all common tactics scammers use to separate distracted travelers from their money. Avoid or leave the situation quickly. If someone bumps you and/or spills on you, say “It’s okay,” and move away from them before they can reach your bag or your pocket. Walk away from people pressuring you to sign a petition. If it turns out to be a real cause, you can learn more about it and show your support from the safety of your own room or at home.
The “help” that helps themselves to your banking information.
This one is not strictly a travel scam. As I sat in my own kitchen doing the research for the article you are reading right now, I received a text message from scammers pretending they were trying to help me. The text was allegedly from Amazon. They wanted to let me know my card was charged $495.99 for a VIZIO 60” Class V Series 4K LED Smart TV. The note assured me that they knew it was “not me” and they wanted me to contact them.
Sitting calmly in my kitchen, working on the arts writing portion of my writing work, I was able to instantly realize that this was a scam. Amazon does not send text messages from random numbers because they think my latest order wasn’t placed by me. But scammers are not counting on calm. They hope the recipient of the text will be distracted, panic, call the number, and provide the “helper” with the credit card number so the charge can be canceled. And we are often distracted when we are on a trip.
Fight back against this scam while traveling by taking a moment, no matter how rushed or distracted you might be. Never hurriedly click on any numbers in a strange text. Delete it immediately.
The bonus view of the strip that costs you a “bonus” for the scammer.
Las Vegas is a dream vacation spot for many. Some like the lure of the chance they might come back with a fortune. Others enjoy the glamorous image the city holds in the popular imagination. And still others just like the buffets, lights, and room service. Those who truly love Vegas love most or all of the above.
One way to put a damper on a Vegas vacation is getting drawn into the Vegas taxi scam. This one can be hard to spot, because the scammer is a legitimate taxi driver, who really is going to take you where you want to go. They are just going to offer to ‘show you the strip” before they do it, greatly increasing, sometimes doubling your fare.
Never announce that you want to see the strip or cannot wait to visit the strip. And don’t fall for what appears to be friendly chatter about where you’re from and how well you know Vegas. The cab driver isn’t trying to befriend you. They’re trying to find out how easy it might be to pull the scam. People who seem exhausted and/or unfamiliar with the city are the easiest targets, because they are likely not paying close attention to the route, and may be unaware that the drive down the strip is a waste of their money.
Refusing the ride will not cause you to miss out on the strip. Walking the strip is easy, and it is free.
Avoiding Vegas will not guarantee avoiding this scam. Unethical cab drivers in all cities can pull the same trick by promising to show you any famous nearby landmark. Always request the shortest route to your destination, no matter where you travel.
Whether you’re headed to an out of town gig, a business meeting, or finally going on vacation, look out for yourself, and each other.
Most of us could stand to save some money. We have the same bills and household expenses as everyone else, plus we have to pay for the tools and materials we need for our art work. One way to keep on top of every opportunity to save is to subscribe to every budgeting, coupon clipping, and money saving blog, Tik Tok content creator, and YouTuber we can find. But do all of these methods truly save money all the time?
Coupon Clipping/aka “Couponing.”
YouTube couponning channels make clipping digital and print coupons appear to be the path to endless free merchandise from stores. The channel host grabs their phone, a wad of paper coupons, and a shopping list, takes us around the store, and proudly shows us their receipt for anywhere from nothing to a few dollars for several full size, brand new products.
Should you be able to duplicate what the content creator did exactly, meaning you have saved or clipped the exact same coupons, and found the same products and discounts available at your local store, you will indeed have gotten the items without spending any money. But unless these are items you either truly want or are able to use to bless someone else, you will still lose money doing this.
Assume my local big box store is offering the exact same sale on “Brand X Body Wash” that I see on my favorite couponing channel. I clip the necessary digital coupons. I track down someone with a print edition of the local paper, and ask if they would mind if I use their unwanted coupons. It works. I head into the big box store and head out with three bottles of “Brand X Body Wash” that I did not pay for.
There is just one problem. I don’t use “Brand X Body Wash,” and am in fact, allergic to it. Unless I can find someone else who can use it, all I did was take items from the shelf that another customer could have used. I did not truly save money, because I still have to purchase something else, a different body wash or a bar soap, that I can actually put in my shower.
And this is the best case scenario. In most cases, clipping coupons leads us to spend more than we would have originally. If I went into the store for one bottle of $3.00 soda, but bought two bottles because I had a 2/$5.00 coupon, all I did was spend two dollars more on soda than I had originally planned to spend.
Couponing can help you, but only if the coupon is for something you were planning to purchase anyway. If “Brand X Body Wash” is what I use in my shower every morning, or if I went into the store to stock up on that soda, using those coupons will indeed save me some money.
Taking free items just because they’re free.
Organizations that give free food and other necessities to the community are great blessings. Swaps and free tables at yard sales are also great ideas, and can be wonderful resources for things you may want and need.
But taking items for no reason other than they’re free is not only greedy, it can wind up costing you money. Let’s take the example of a free table at a yard sale. I grab everything on the table, just because it’s free, coming home with a wall hanging that needs a new frame, a jacket I will need to have tailored to fit me, and so many books I need a new bookcase to hold them all. Each of these “free” things now costs me money I wouldn’t have spent had I just helped myself to the items I could truly use and left the rest there for people who can alter the decoration themselves, fit into the jacket, and have space for the books.
There is nothing wrong with accepting free items. Just pause first, and make sure the items are things that will truly help, rather than hinder, your efforts to save money.
Buying things that are good deals for somebody else.
We all have different things that are important to us when it comes to the things we buy. Some people are interested in electronics, and feel it is necessary to own the most recent smartphone they can afford. Some admire designer clothes, and strive to have a wardrobe full of prestigious labels. These things are completely unimportant to others.
Purchasing something that is discounted, even deeply discounted, for a reason that is meaningless to you is still a waste of money. A quick trip around the designer clothing resale website “The Real Real,” informs me that the next cardigan I buy can be a Prada cashmere for $195. Similar sweaters on Prada’s website are priced at $1,390.
While this is indeed an amazing discount, and would be a great deal for anyone into fashion design or collecting designer clothing, it would still be a waste of money for someone who does not share these interests. My favorite cardigans come from Walmart, and cost about $15 full price, so I would not be saving any money at the Real Real, no matter how deep the discount.
Signing up to sell for multilevel marketing companies for the discount.
Multilevel marketing, the practice of signing up to offer your services as a freelance sales and recruitment person for companies such as Tupperware, Mary Kay, Jafra, and others, is known to have something like a 97% failure rate. Most people are unable to turn this work into a profitable business. Even counting on these companies for a second, part-time job is more likely to result in loss than gain.
But signing up just for the discount seems harmless enough. You love the product. You sign up as a consultant. If there is a kit, you get to pick through yours, keeping the items you want for yourself until you’ve paid yourself back the sign up fee in products. Then you get everything else you want for 20%....30%...sometimes even 50% off. And if you do happen to do a little sales work, you can even earn a little side hustle cash.
In 2018, I thought I had found this very opportunity with Avon. And to be fair, it worked for a short time. I earned enough money to pay myself back what I spent on my startup kit, plus receive two jars of vitamins and a selection of makeup to try, free to me by only spending what I earned in commission from my first few sales. But by the time I selected the items I wanted to repurchase, and set a goal of earning $100 beyond their cost to get my hair done, my sales had dried up. Those first few sales had been placed by people who didn’t want the items and were only trying to do me a favor. Had I kept going, I would have been forced to purchase items with cash I did not earn from Avon in order to keep my discount. Over time, the amount of money I spent to keep the discount would have become more than the value of the items I earned for free.
Whether you are tempted to buy something just because you found a coupon or a sale price, take anything you can get for free, or sign up for any type of side work, take a moment to pause and think things over. You may have found a great deal indeed. Or you may realize you were about to spend even more money than you would have without the “opportunity.”
by Jess Szabo'
originally published on Artist Cafe Utica
Websites and apps offering the opportunity to earn free gift cards are not additional income streams. No matter how much time you spend logged on, or how many activities you participate in, there is no way you can make enough money to consider these sites a second job, side gig, side hustle, or source of passive income. But they can serve as fun, easy ways to give yourself a little free gift or bonus once in a while, or to fund some small purchase or goal. You could earn enough gift cards to pay for a special dinner, purchase a jacket or bag that’s just a little out of your budget,or get a free book or album or two.
Shopkick promises to provide such opportunities. All you have to do is download the free app on to your phone, sign up, and participate in some of the simple activities to earn points, which they call “kicks.” Once you earn a certain number of “kicks,” you can redeem them for free gift cards, or small amounts of cash added on to your PayPal account.
Shopkick receives nearly all positive reviews online, and has been around since 2010, becoming more popular over the past year due to brand deals with a few YouTube video creators.
My Shopkick app was downloaded after I watched a February9, 2022 video from the YouTube channel “couponwithStar.” There were no issues downloading the app, and I was able to enter the code from the channel, redeemable for a $10.00 bonus, soon after signing up.
Points,or “kicks,” can be earned for walking into local stores, scanning barcodes for specific items in those same stores, purchasing selected items while there, or for shopping online. You can also earn the odd one to three points for watching videos.
I earned my first few points for watching videos, just to test out the app. They posted as promised.
On offer for February 10, 2022 was 10 points for walking into my local Target. Malls are among my least favorite places to spend time, but our local mall is where I go to walk for exercise, and I had been sitting around far too much lately. I was also in need of clothes hangers, so I spent the $12 on an Uber ride, and decided to try to earn back the money I spent on the ride.
Shortly after entering Target, I pressed the button to notify the app that I had walked into the store. My points posted, and the combination of the videos and the walk-in points were enough to generate my $10 bonus from the YouTube video.
Walking around the mall, stopping for a quick lunch at China Express in the food court, and looking around to see if anything new was coming in gave everything the chance to post to my account. It all looked legitimate.
I selected the Paypal $10 cash deposit option for a reward, only to learn that I was in fact 25 points short. But that was not a problem. There was also the chance to earn points for scanning the bar code on any Tidy Cats cat litter, and a new eco friendly line of home cleaning products. I would only need to walk back across the mall, go back into Target, and scan two items, and I would get all but $2 from my Uber ride back.
Standing there in the aisles scanning products felt embarrassing at first, but honestly, nobody even gave me an odd glance. There are so many of these gift card apps, coupon apps, and price checking apps out there today, scanning something with your phone is no more disruptive to anyone else’s shopping than pausing to compare the prices of two items the old-fashioned way or pull a paper coupon out of your pocket or bag. And I had my points for the $10 to be sent to my Paypal account.
My money never made it. Every time I tried to redeem my points, all I got was a notification that my payment could not be sent. Assuming there was a glitch with Paypal, I decided to choose another reward. I tried to redeem my points for ten dollar gift cards to Amazon and Barnes and Noble, only to get error messages in return.
Reaching out to customer service got me a message, three days later, reading, “Thanks for reaching out! Please go ahead and try redeeming your reward again-it should work now, we think :) “ (Smiley faces and exclamation points theirs.)
I tried it again, only to receive an error message stating that I was trying to sign in on an unrecognized device and they could not email me. Notifying the company about that error got me a link to register my device.
This finally worked. The free $10 to Paypal was deposited.
Shopkick is not quite as quick and easy as it seems in the beginning, but getting back $10 of the $12 I spent on my Uber ride was a nice bonus. I will continue to use the app as a resource to earn the odd free gift card or cash to spend on an Uber ride. But like any app or website offering the chance to earn free things, the payoff is never going to be big enough to justify daily logins or extra hours added to every chore.
As helpful as money saving videos and articles can be, too many waste time blaming everything on poor spending habits. Going out or stopping for coffee seems to be a favorite target.
YouTube financial guru Graham Stephan is justifiably proud of his financial knowledge and skills. According to the videos on his channel, Stephan educated himself and worked his way from having little to no money to having millions by age twenty-six. His insights on investing, renting versus buying, and budgeting are aimed at millenials, but he offers guidance most of us could use.
Stephan further stands out on YouTube in a sea of channels devoted to things like twenty-thousand dollar Gucci hauls and stays at five-thousand dollar per night hotels. Despite his wealth, Stephan is known for being frugal, down to his trademark iced coffee. Stephan’s coffee is never purchased from Dunkin, Starbucks, or a local specialty coffeehouse. He has an entire video devoted to him brewing a pot of Peet’s Coffee at home, placing the pot in the refrigerator, serving himself from the pot, then mixing in some Coffeemate flavored creamer. He estimates each glass he drinks to cost around twenty cents when the cost of the coffee, creamer, and coffee filters are added up and divided by the number of cups each pot of coffee and bottle of creamer produces.
It’s an overblown, YouTube way of telling people they should feel guilty about stopping for coffee on the way to work or school, or going out for coffee. But Graham Stephan is not the only financial advice guru to behave as though every financial issue in a person’s life only exists because they are self indulgent and short-sighted with their money.
The whole “You’re poor because you go out for coffee” argument is an oversimplification of a web of social issues that contribute to poverty in America.
Anyone who has ever struggled to pay a basic household bill wishes financial freedom were as simple as giving up good coffee. I think we’d all happily drink three day old off brand bitter sludge from the dusty discounted product rack at the worst grocery store in town if it meant we never had to worry about money again. It doesn’t work that way.
Personal choices do play a part in our finances, but they are only one part of a picture that starts with when and where we were born, and branches out to include everything from the national economy, education and job training policies, and healthcare to fads and popular culture. Stephan would still be rich if it were not for YouTube, as most of his money was made in Real Estate, but many his age or younger would struggle to pay their bills if sitting and watching people do things like play pranks and open up boxes were not such a popular American time waster today.
Going out for coffee or stopping for coffee often means more to people than treating themselves to a luxury product.
“High end” and “luxury” are not words anyone would ever apply to most of my tastes or habits. When I need something for the house, thrift stores, Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, and Dollar Tree are the first places I look. My clothes are almost exclusively purchased at discount clothing stores, and I rarely add anything to my wardrobe without looking for a sale and/or a coupon first. But I like high end coffee, and love going out for coffee. And I am perfectly capable of brewing a pot of coffee at home. I make at least one pot every morning.
Sitting at home drinking a cup of coffee I made myself just does not compare to hanging out in a coffeehouse or diner sipping a cup or two.
Going out for coffee is about more than the coffee for many people. It’s a way to form social circles. “My crowd” are the people I met while sitting in my favorite chair at the Tram sipping coffee and listening to music or spoken word art. For those in recovery from harmful addictions, their favorite coffeehouse is often the only way they can go out while avoiding bars and casinos. Stopping for coffee can be an important way of relaxing and mentally preparing for work for a lot of people.
While the coffee is not the cause of all your money problems, Stephan and others who rail against going out for coffee do have a point about wasting money thoughtlessly.
Buying specialty coffee for your cupboard and going out for coffee drinks should never be given up except in cases of extreme financial emergency if they truly mean something to you. We all need money to survive, but money is not more important than our art, our community, and our friends and family. If you are playing or reading at a local coffeehouse, your purchase of a cup of coffee supports the business owner, who is supporting you by hosting the event. It gives you time to spend with your fellow artists, and your friends. Those friendships are more important than those few dollars you would save by purchasing a single bottle of water, or declining to make a purchase, and rushing home to drink a cup of coffee in the kitchen alone.
It is only when you find yourself buying something you do not truly need or want, out of sheer habit, or in response to peer pressure, that you may want to cut back. Stop going in on Starbucks runs at work if you do not truly like the brand, and are just ordering a coffee because all your coworkers got one. Switch to store brand coffee if you’re only buying Green Mountain because your former roommate liked it, and it’s what you’ve become used to grabbing from the shelf.
And if you have a short term project to fund…try skipping your coffeehouse coffee once or twice a week, stashing the cash….and having some of Graham Stephan’s “twenty cent” coffee. Unless you hang out at the Tram. Buy as much as possible from them when they reopen. You can hang out with me. I’ll be the one in the wingback chair by the hallway, working on my latest novel….and this website….over coffee.
For many artists working in a small city, frugality is necessary. We often need to find the least expensive ways to meet our basic needs and get the things we want, if we can. This can be especially necessary for musicians, who have the added expenses of instruments and other equipment. But there are times when being frugal goes much too far for anyone.
Money saving measures cause you to risk serious health issues.
We have all resorted to canned soup, frozen pizza, one dollar frozen dinners, or boxed mac and cheese as a main dish to save money from time to time. Some of us do the “hoodie or sweater that is not part of our outfit kept on inside the house” trick instead of turning up the heat on chilly days, take the occasional shower with the last dredges of shampoo or body wash rinsed from the bottle with half a container of water, or put up with annoying chips and cracks in cell phone screens to save on the cost of repair or replacement.
These measures are very different than not eating anything or only eating junk foods, resorting to shivering or sweating profusely to save money on the utility bills, not tending to personal hygiene at all, or getting shards in your fingers from your broken phone screen. If your cost saving measure is causing you to get sick more often than usual, feel hungry, or cause injury, it’s time to give it up.
Dumpster diving and picking up discarded items left on the curb can also be dangerous. Even if you find something that looks pristine, there may be mold or insects embedded in furniture, or a package of food or cosmetics might have small holes in it. You also have no way of knowing what your items came into contact with inside the trash.
Your behavior takes advantage of someone else.
Both “Extreme Cheapskates” and “So Freakin’ Cheap,” reality shows spotlighting extremely frugal individuals and families, feature people who pull the “free ice cream for dessert” trick. They walk into a small, locally owned ice cream parlor that does not have a posted limit on samples, and ask to sample multiple flavors until they are full. When the clerk asks them what they would like to order, they brush them off and walk out the door.
Never do this, with ice cream or any other food. Consuming excessive amounts of samples decreases the business’ inventory while bringing them no income in return. It unnecessarily wastes the clerk’s time, and forces them to do extra work, as twenty tiny scoops are harder to serve than one full one. And eventually, it will ruin things for future customers, as store owners often limit, or even completely eliminate free samples when they see someone pulling this stunt. This can result in critical reviews that impact the business overall.
Experiences and memories are being taken over by bargain seeking.
The whole point of being frugal is to be able to save yourself some money while continuing to reach your goals and live the life you want. If you’re making yourself or your loved ones miserable instead, the frugality has gone too far.
Opting for a budget hotel because your family or friends plan to spend as much of your vacation as possible on the beach anyway is a great way to save money. Booking that same hotel after you and your spouse or best friends saved up for year just to have a weekend at a luxury hotel is ruining things for the sake of a buck. Having your daughter’s graduation party at the spacious home of beloved relative or family friend rather than renting space is fine. Begging family members you barely know or communicate with to host the party simply because they have a big back yard is only going to cause resentment from all involved.
Trying too hard to be frugal is actually costing you more money overall.
Coupon use can be a great money saving tool, or it can cost you money. Using coupons, including per cent of purchase rebate sites like Rakuten, and discount deal sites such as Groupon, only truly save you money if you buy the items you were planning to buy before you found the deal and nothing else. Buying anything else just to activate a coupon or rebate is likely to cost you more money overall. Driving all over town to find the store where an item is a dollar or two cheaper with a coupon than the prices in your usual store increases the amount of money you need to spend on gas or on paying for cabs or rideshare services. That increase is probably bigger than the savings on the item.
Insisting upon doing things yourself when you lack the skill, patience, or materials to do a good job also falls into this category. It costs a lot less to just go to a salon and have your hair colored than it does to color your hair at home, mess up, and then go to a salon for repairative treatments and corrective color. Home repairs cost more when someone has to come in and fix damage you did trying to learn to do them yourself online instead of calling a professional. And attempting to dye or embellish clothing, drapes, or other textiles when you do not know how typically results in needing to completely replace the item.
“Money saving” is beginning to approach “stealing.”
Technically, shoving a wad of sauce or ketchup packets into your takeout bag when you’ve only purchased one meal isn’t stealing. Those packets are there free for the customers, and you are a customer. But it’s not exactly honest either. While there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a few more than you wound up needing and using them later, those little packets of ketchup and sauce are not there to save you $2.00 or $3.00 for the bottle at the grocery store.
Regardless of your opinion about multilevel marketing, network marketing, or direct sales companies, approaching someone who sells for them and pretending to be a potential customer only to get free samples is dishonest. Yes, you probably could keep yourself supplied with lip gloss or moisturizer for free if you asked every Mary Kay, Avon, Jafra, and Arbonne representative in your area for samples, and eat plenty of free meals by tagging along to Pampered Chefs or Tupperware parties to fill up on the demo meals and snacks with no intention of buying. That doesn’t mean you should do it.
Saving money is a great goal, but only if you are truly saving money, and if you are not making that money more important than your own health and well-being, or the health and well-being of others.