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Telephone fraud: Swindlers are calling

By Dorothy Teuto

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


Telemarketing fraud continues to run rampant in this nation. No matter how many laws are instituted to stop it, it finds a way to come back and rip off the unsuspecting. Here are eight things you should be aware of about telemarketing fraud:

Most telephone sales calls are made by legitimate businesses offering legitimate products or services. But wherever honest firms search for new customers, so do swindlers. Phone fraud is a multi-billion dollar industry. Whether you become a victim is up to you.

There is no way to positively determine whether a sales call is on the up and up simply by talking with someone on the phone. No matter what questions you ask, skilled swindlers have ready answers. Phone swindlers are likely to know more about you than you would think. Depending on where they got your name, they may know your age, income, health, hobbies, occupation, marital status, education, your home type, whether you've bought by phone in the past and more.

Fraudulent sales callers have one thing in common. They are skilled liars and experts at distorting the facts. Their success depends on it. Many are coached to "say whatever it takes." Perpetrators of phone fraud are extremely good at sounding as though they represent legitimate businesses. They offer investments, sell subscriptions, provide products for homes and offices, promote travel, describe employment opportunities, etc. Even if you have read lists of the kinds of schemes most commonly practiced, innovative swindlers constantly devise new ones.

Phone swindlers look for victims. Most victims are intelligent and prudent people. Sadly, some families part with savings they worked years to accumulate on the basis of little more than a 15 minute phone conversation. Less time than they would spend considering the purchase of a household appliance.

The person who initiates the phone call might be you. It is not uncommon for phone crooks to use direct mailings and advertise in reputable publications. So when you write or phone for additional information about an investment, product or service, be cautious.

Despite efforts of law enforcement and regulatory agencies, victims of phone fraud seldom get their money back. At best, no more than a few cents on the dollar. Tip-offs that a caller could be a crook:

High-pressure sales tactics. Insistence on an immediate decision. The offer sounds too good to be true. A request for your credit card number for any purpose other than to make a purchase. An offer to send someone to pick up the money or some other method such as overnight mail to get your funds more quickly.

Statements to look out for: That something is "free," followed by a requirement that you pay for something. An investment that is "without risk." Unwillingness to provide written information or references, such as a bank or names of satisfied customers in your area, that you can contact. A suggestion that you should make a purchase or investment on the basis of "trust."

Ways to avoid becoming a victim:

Don't allow yourself to be pushed into a hurried decision. Always request written information, by mail, about the product, service, investment or charity and about the organization that is offering it.

Don't make any investment or purchase you don't fully understand. Ask what state or federal agencies the firm is regulated by and/or is required to be registered with. Check out the company or organization. If an investment or major purchase is involved, request that information also be sent to your accountant, financial adviser, banker, or attorney for evaluation and an opinion.

Ask what recourse you have if you buy and aren't satisfied.

Beware of testimonials that you may have no way of checking out.

Don't provide personal financial information over the phone unless you are absolutely certain the caller has a bona fide need to know.

If necessary, hang up.

- Dottie Teuton is executive director of the Better Business Federation. Additional information may be obtained from the office by calling in Citrus County at 795-3547 or Marion County 307-9222 or by e-mail at betterbusifed@hitter.net.

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