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PRODUCTION NOTE BULLETS

By Alice Bredin

The Federal Trade Commission recently focused its spotlight on Web-site scams that have duped 300,000 companies. As part of these scams, unethical site designers contact small businesses and offer to build and post Web sites for free trial periods.

In reality, businesses are charged for the "free" trials. Many are billed repeatedly, including some that never agreed to the trial offer. The charges show up on phone bills and, in many cases, go unnoticed by busy business owners.

This scam is only one of many that people who work at home may encounter. From home security to cramming the practice of hiding third-party charges within the details of a phone bill home-based workers need to stay alert to avoid potential scams. Here are some frauds to watch for:

? Make big bucks while working from home. The FTC has been on top of companies and individuals who make unsubstantiated claims in advertisements that tout "low-effort-big-bucks" approaches to working at home. The FTC requires that products' and services' success rates be based on reliable evidence and reflect the typical user's experience.

Claims such as "I made $20,000 during my first week" and "I brought in an extra $6,000 each month in my spare time" should be treated as suspect. It's best to avoid these scams by remembering the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

? Home repair. Now that summer is here, home-repair scams rise with the temperatures. Strangers survey homes from the street and then knock on doors and offer to clean gutters, fix roof problems or tackle other chores that obviously need to be done. To gain your confidence, the visitors may mention a nonexistent neighbor up the street for whom they work.

Once hired, they may do substandard work, or even worse, case your house for a future burglary. If you need home repair, deal with licensed home-repair businesses that offer solid references.

? Work-at-home "guides." Watch for the sale of booklets that claim to explain how to find work-at-home jobs such as manuscript reading, order fulfillment or piece-work. Some publishers of these materials have been charged with fraud by the FTC. To stay within legal limits, the materials' producers must realistically present a typical consumer's profit from the work-at-home opportunities and clearly state refund policies.

? 809 area codes. Con artists soak up money using variations of a scam that involves calling a number in the 809 area code. This 809 code belongs to the British Virgin Islands (the Bahamas). Some 809 numbers are set up as "pay-per-call" numbers, such as 900 numbers are in the United States.

The scam unfolds when unethical billing services get you to call an 809 pay-per-call number and then charge up to $25 per minute. The perpetrators often send urgent and sometimes confusing messages through voicemail or e-mail and request that you respond quickly.

For instance, as a business person you might receive a message about an outstanding account that will be turned over to lawyers unless you call an 809 number immediately. Other messages may suggest that a family member is ill or has been arrested. Sometimes the person who answers will keep the caller on the line by speaking broken English and pretending not to understand. By the time the call ends, it may have run up a $100 bill or more.

Home-office ergonomics

A writer whom I've known for years was just diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition that includes severe wrist pain, stiffness and swelling. The diagnosis was a real blow because she depends on her typing ability to make a living.

Like many people who work at home, this writer has an office setup that puts her at risk of injury. Her makeshift work area requires her to lean forward when typing, which strains her shoulders and wrists. When she set up the office two years ago, she considered it temporary, but a booming freelance career and procrastination prevented her from upgrading it. Sadly and ironically, she will lose much more productive time now while resting her body and doing physical therapy.

If you suffer from back, neck, eye or wrist pain, it's time to assess your home office's ergonomic setup. This suffering is unnecessary and easily avoided. The home-office and small-business booms have prompted manufacturers to create an abundance of office furniture and accessory solutions with a variety of price points.

Not only does poor office design put you at risk for long-term injury, it threatens daily productivity by subjecting your body to strain. Here are some common injuries caused by poorly designed workspaces and some steps you can take to avoid them:

? Eyestrain. If your eyes burn or feel tight at the end of the workday, or if you have consistent headaches, you may suffer from eyestrain. Flickering monitors, some fluorescent lights and sun glare contribute to eye soreness. Other catalysts include reading small type, improper lighting and concentrating on one thing for too long.

To reduce eyestrain, control sunlight with curtains, get rid of equipment that contributes to the problem and use a large font for all your documents. Consider purchasing an anti-glare filter for your monitor. Finally, take a break from computer work for at least 60 seconds every 20 minutes.

? Neck pain. If your neck and shoulders are tense and painful after a day of work, your computer monitor may sit too high or too low on your desk. When working, you should be looking slightly downward at the screen. If your monitor is too low, raise it by placing a large book such as a phone directory underneath it. If your monitor sits on top of something and you find yourself looking up at it, move it so that it sits directly on your desk.

? Back pain. If your back's sore at the end of each workday, evaluate your office chair. Many home-based workers use kitchen chairs as desk chairs. This can exacerbate back problems because many kitchen chairs do not offer back support. Office chairs, on the other hand, are usually contoured to support the back. In addition to having a good chair, moving or stretching frequently throughout the workday is another good way to ward off back pain.

? Wrist pain. Painful, tingling or numb hands may be a sign of carpal tunnel syndrome, which can be caused by excessive typing or handwriting. Resting wrists on hard edges can also inflame nerves. To keep wrist pain in check, choose a desk height that leaves your arms parallel to the floor when you work. Position the keyboard so that your wrists are straight when typing.

If your keyboard is thick, place a raised wrist rest in front of it. Also, when you sit at your desk and your upper arms are vertical, the angle between your forearm and your upper arm should be 90 degrees. Finally, structure your workday to so that you get a typing break each hour.

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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