Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Seniors warned about swindlers

Postal inspectors, FTC launch effort

The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — The stories are always slightly different but basically are the same: Louis Johnson Jr. had won an enticing prize, and all he had to do to collect was pay a processing fee. Susanne Conley-Higgins noticed her mother suddenly was buying and mailing a lot of money orders.

        Mail and telemarketing fraud are up 27 percent this year,the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said Monday as it began a campaign to alert the public to the growing danger of being swindled.

        Chief Postal Inspector Lee Heath said a shaky economy entices people to look for different ways to invest their money, and too often they find fraudsters out there “just waiting.”

        Last year Heath's office handled 66,000 fraud complaints. At the rate they are coming in this year, the total could top 80,000, he said.

        The National Consumers League estimated that illegal telemarketing costs Americans $40 billion annually.

        So the Postal Inspection Service is putting up posters in the 38,000 post offices, is mailing post cards to more than 3 million homes in areas where large populations of the elderly live and is launching a media campaign featuring actress Betty White.

        Joining the post office and the consumers' league in the effort are the Federal Trade Commission, the Alliance Against Fraud in Telemarketing and Electronic Commerce and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

        The campaign is focusing on senior citizens because they are often a prime target of these schemes, which “really makes me angry,” said Conley-Higgins of Portland, Maine.

        Her elderly mother doesn't drive, and when Conley-Higgins took her to the store she noticed that her mother was buying a lot of money orders and mailing them off. In addition, her mother seemed to be getting a lot of magazines and new products.

        When she asked, her mother said she was sending for things because that would help her win lotteries and sweepstakes. It took a pair of postal inspectors to explain that wasn't true, Conley-Higgins said.

        For Johnson, of Orange, N.J., the offer came from Canada, announcing that he had won one of four prizes. All he had to do, the announcement said, was send $199 for the cost of processing the winnings across the border.

        When nothing arrived Johnson began calling the company in Toronto. “I got the run-around,” he said: the person he needed to talk too always was busy or in meetings. He was put on hold for a half-hour or more.

        Frustrated, he called the Better Business Bureau, which contacted postal inspectors. The U.S. inspectors worked with Canadian postal officials, and Johnson finally got his money back.

        Lots of people never see their money again, and often it's a lot more than $199.

        “I was fortunate it was just that amount,” Johnson reflected.

Guard against mail fraud

        Some suggestions from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to guard against mail fraud:

        • You should never have to pay to receive a prize or enter a sweepstakes contest. If payment is required, it's illegal.

        • If you're told you're guaranteed to win a prize, or no risk is involved, be skeptical.

        • Any lottery that involves a foreign country and is conducted through the mail is illegal.

        • Legitimate charities don't ask for donations in conjunction with a contest. The problem is that many phony charities use names that sound or look like respected organizations.

        • Don't give Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers or other financial information to callers you don't know. If it's a reputable group, this information won't be requested.

        • Don't be pressured into making an immediate decision. Get all information in writing before agreeing to enter a contest, make a purchase or give a donation. If you suspect fraud, contact the Postal Inspection Service.

        • At the homes of elderly friends or relatives, look for stacks of unsolicited mail proclaiming the recipient to be “a guaranteed winner” or offering lottery tickets for sale.

        • Watch for an unusual number of packages arriving for the elderly containing inexpensive costume jewelry, plastic cameras or wristwatches.

        • Note if the elderly are receiving unsolicited telephone calls from fast-talking operators offering “fantastic” opportunities to claim prizes or make surefire investments. If so, you can arrange for unlisted phone numbers for them.

        • Volunteer to help balance checkbooks of the elderly and ask about questionable checks or sudden, large withdrawals. Offer to go over credit card statements to ensure that only authorized purchases are listed.

        • Offer to pick up the mail of seniors to see if they are receiving unsolicited sweepstakes or lottery offers. If so, they may be on a variety of “sucker lists” circulated by con artists. Have a trusted family friend help check the mail daily.


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