Tips for avoiding falling prey to fraud

Posted: Friday, April 05, 2002

Just walk away. Just hang up the telephone. Just tell the person at the door no thanks, you're not interested.

When it comes to avoiding fraud -- from deceptive, ''you've-just-won'' mail to telemarketing scams -- experts agree the only sure way is to quickly end your contact with the individual, whether he is standing in front of you or on the phone.

A measure of abruptness is needed, particularly when it comes to fast-talking telemarketers, the method currently used by the biggest scam operators in the nation.

''Why take a chance? By not hanging up immediately, you're advertising your vulnerability. The longer they can keep you on the phone, the greater the chance that you're going to be scammed,'' says Monroe Friedman, a professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Friedman, who has studied fraud against seniors for more than a decade, took an in-depth look a few years ago at how more than 300 older people avoided getting taken.

He found that all of those people noticed suspicious or unusual elements in the story being pitched to them.

Typically, people who dismiss these warning signs get bilked because they just aren't paying close attention and are taken in by the ''story'' the individual is describing, he said.

Friedman notes a story told by one of the 300 people he interviewed. A woman walked up to the man on a street in Boston and breathlessly told him she was selling magazine subscriptions to get money for college. He could pay right there and get a year's subscription to a certain magazine and help her out at the same time.

''It all sounded very noble, helping someone get an education, and he didn't think anything of it, was prepared to write a check, until she said, 'All my life I've always wanted to go to the University of Boston,''' Friedman said.

''Now anyone who's grown up in Boston knows that it's Boston University, and that slip-up on her part got him thinking. A short time later, he just walked away because he knew it wasn't right.''

But sometimes even people who presumably should know better end up getting scammed.

James Henke, a semi-retired business consultant in Indianapolis, invested and nearly lost $31,000 in savings in a tantalizing plan to renovate run-down housing bought on the cheap.

By investing in the renovations, a local radio personality promised Henke he could make him a whopping 12 percent interest when the spruced-up units were resold.

''It was basically a get-rich-quick scheme. The pitch was 'You're going to make money because you're smarter than the average person,' and I bought into it,'' said Henke, 61.

Henke managed to recover his money after a yearlong court battle only because he had his investment recorded with the local county recorder's office and bought a type of insurance.

Among the many tips for avoiding becoming a fraud victim, one stands out: Never give out your credit card number, bank account number, Social Security number, or other personal information.

That general rule is often forgotten in the heat of a high-pressure scam, particularly if a caller makes repeated phone calls, over time, that become increasingly personable, Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery said.

''The scam artists are very clever at what they do, they insinuate their way into the seniors' lives. They act like they care about their lives and the next thing you know the bank account or credit card numbers are being given out,'' said Montgomery, who chairs the National Association of Attorneys Generals' consumer protection committee.

She said seniors, and people of all ages, should always investigate any company or charity before investing or making a donation. The Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general's office keeps a list of complaints against companies.


Source: National AARP Fraud Information Center: 1-800-876-7060.

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