New program could help consumers avoid scams
(Seattle Times, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Nov. 17--Michelle Walsh's son called her one day to ask about a $20 check his family had received as a gift from Walsh's mother.
Can we take this? he wondered. Or should we send it back to Grandma?
"I had to reassure him it was OK. I just think that's kind of sad that they had to call and say, 'What do we do?' " the Bothell woman said.
Walsh's 82-year-old mother has spent herself into financial ruin over the past seven years at the hands of smooth-talking con artists who bombarded her with pitches for foreign lotteries and other scams.
Her mother likely got herself onto a "sucker list" -- a list of easy marks bought and sold by scammers.
Walsh and her family watched as her mother lost more than $100,000 to cons, but they found they were helpless to stop it.
"Once they get your name, you never -- never -- get away from them," Walsh said.
Now a new fraud-prevention effort is under way to help families intervene with friends or relatives in the grip of con artists.
AARP Washington recently opened a first-of-its-kind call center, aiming to reach 100,000 consumers in the next year and teach them how to spot and avoid scams.
In what is sometimes called a "reverse boiler room," AARP's volunteer "fraud fighters" are calling people on sucker lists seized by law-enforcement officers from boiler-room telemarketing operations, warning them they may be in danger of being conned.
Walsh agreed to talk about the effect of fraud on her family with the understanding that her mother's name and home state wouldn't be disclosed. She said her mother would be humiliated by the publicity. Even today, her mother believes it's a matter of time until she wins the lottery.
"I just don't want another family to have to go through this," Walsh said.
The depth of the damage
Walsh's mother shared a secret with her daughter in 2000, when Walsh visited the small Midwestern town where her mother lives.
She had won a great deal of money from a Canadian lottery, she confided, but she needed to pay taxes and fees upfront to claim it. Walsh and her sister tried to tell their mom something sounded wrong.
"No matter how we approached it, she thought she was right," Walsh said.
Many other people also tried to intervene on her mother's behalf: her mother's sister, who lives nearby; the drugstore and grocery store, which eventually refused to wire more money from her accounts; her accountant, who warned her she was likely being scammed; even the FBI, which called with questions because she was wiring so much money out of the country.
Walsh's mother fired the accountant and found other places to wire her money.
Listen to the phone calls
The AARP analyzed hundreds of fraudulent telemarketing pitches recorded by law-enforcement investigators posing as victims, studying the psychological tactics cons use to get at your cash and personal information.
The Canadian Lottery pitch
The con, "Mr. Pedro," calls Peggy, an investigator posing as a victim, to tell her she's been selected to play the Canadian lottery. It will only cost $1,500 to play, he tells Peggy, and asks for her bank account information.
The sweepstakes pitch
A con calling himself Mr. Johnson calls Edith, an investigator posing as a victim, to tell her she's won a $150,000 sweepstakes prize.
"The amount that you have to pay on your duties, tariffs and transfer fees …would come out to exactly $6,671…When do you think you might be able to go to the bank and prepare a cashier's check…?"
"You need to know that my mother is not stupid," Walsh said. She ran the social-services department at the local hospital, is active in her church and went back to school to earn a lay-ministry certificate after her husband died in 1989.
Walsh believes that after her mother completed her studies, she didn't know what else to do with herself. The scammers somehow filled a need for adventure, she suspects.
Eventually, a local detective who was a family friend -- "our guardian angel," Walsh said -- went to court to establish a conservatorship on her behalf.
Then the extent of the damage became clear.
Walsh's family learned that her mother had run up her credit cards and refinanced her house three times to pay taxes and fees to collect winnings that never materialized on a series of bogus lotteries.
She ultimately lost her home of 25 years, which was sold to pay her debts. She now lives in a small one-bedroom rental.
"She wiped out everything she and my dad had worked for all their lives," Walsh said.
AARP reaches out
What to do
--Sign up for the federal government's Do Not Call list. Or ask your loved one to get an unlisted phone number. Opt out of unsolicited offers and junk mail. The Federal Trade Commission tells you how at this Web site: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/
--Talk about the criminal nature and the consequences of scams. Scam artists work hard to establish rapport with victims. Victims are more likely to recognize the risk if they understand the harm that can come from such a relationship.
--Explain what to do when a con artist comes calling. Give them ideas for how to hang up the phone or say no to a door-to-door salesman.
--Don't blame the victim. Show empathy and note that millions of Americans lose money to scams every year.
A common misconception about scam victims is that they are, somehow, more gullible or less educated than the rest of us.
But professional cons are so sophisticated, they can tailor a scam to fit virtually anyone, said Doug Shadel, state director of AARP Washington.
The volunteers in AARP's new call center work from call sheets on which telemarketers sometimes make notes as they talk with potential victims -- information that makes those names more valuable when they're resold to other cons.
Some call sheets are eerily detailed, like this one about a potential victim in South Carolina:
"Working man, 53, never married. Worked at Wal-Mart 18 years. Works 3rd shift. $10,600 in IRA. Has over 200k in investments. If needed, can get more money in 3 days. Loves to talk!"
AARP's approach borrows ideas from the bad guys, using custom prevention pitches and one-on-one conversations to help those most at risk of becoming scam victims.
Volunteers tailor their calls to a variety of cons, from ID theft to charity fraud to investment scams, depending on the need and the kinds of lists provided by law enforcement.
"The message is coming not from your child, but from a peer, and it's less threatening," said AARP project director Jean Mathisen.
Though AARP is a membership organization for people 50 and older, the fraud-prevention calls are made to anyone regardless of age or membership.
The new outreach effort has an interactive element, too, with a toll-free line (800-646-2283) that concerned friends and family of scam victims can call for advice or to request peer-counseling calls on the family's behalf.
The call center was launched in partnership with the state Attorney General's office, using money from a multistate agreement reached last year with Western Union Financial Services that addressed concerns about the use of the company's wire-transfer services by fraudulent telemarketers.
Escaping the cons
Con artists bilk American consumers out of more than $40 billion every year. People 50 and older are especially vulnerable, accounting for more than half of all victims.
Some warning signs that a family member or friend may have fallen victim to a scam:
--The phone rings constantly, with calls seeking money for charity or offering money-making opportunities.
--There are lots of cheap, new trinkets around the house or new magazine subscriptions. Watches, pens and small appliances are often part of order-to-win schemes.
--Money is being frequently withdrawn, or payments are being made to unfamiliar companies. These may be checks or money transfers, often in increasing amounts.
--There is secretive behavior regarding mail and phone calls or sudden difficulty paying bills or affording basic necessities.
Short of getting a court order, it can be next to impossible for families to break the grip of con artists peddling false hope to a relative.
Beverly Asbury has tried everything to get her 84-year-old uncle in Yakima to stop sending money to a con. She believes he's already lost as much as $30,000 to lottery and sweepstakes scams.
He's borrowed money from friends and gotten cash advances on his credit cards to keep his chances for winning alive.
Going to court to have her uncle declared incompetent is not an option, Asbury said, because there's no question about his competency.
Her uncle is a former bank manager who also ran his own CPA business and is active in his church and community.
"When someone's in the midst of this, they believe it, more than they believe their family," said Asbury, who lives in Vancouver. "It's heartbreaking. You feel frustrated, and you get angry with your loved one. But it's not their fault. They're psychologically sucked in."
The family finally convinced Asbury's uncle to agree to an unlisted phone number and to have his mail redirected to Asbury's mother. He's still receiving up to 15 scam letters a day and wants his mail and phone back as soon as he moves into a new senior-living facility.
Walsh's mother also wants her phone and mail back. A court-appointed guardian now is in charge of all her mother's money and even screens her mail, still overflowing with letters from cons.
Her mother has a new, unlisted phone number. Yet somehow, the bad guys already have found her again.
When Walsh visited her mother in June, the phone rang, and Walsh could hear her mother's end of the conversation.
"It's a land scheme," she whispered to her daughter.
"I'll have to call you back later," she told the con.
Jolayne Houtz: firstname.lastname@example.org; 206-464-3122.
Washington ranks second in the nation in fraud complaints. More than 11,000 Washington consumers filed fraud complaints last year with the Federal Trade Commission, losing an average of $1,600 each. Among the top scam complaints:
Prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries: Promotions for "free" prizes that require a fee; foreign lotteries and sweepstakes offered by phone, fax, e-mail or mail. Some of these even include realistic-looking checks to gain the victim's confidence. It is not legal to play foreign lotteries in the United States.
Foreign money offers: You might know this one as the Nigerian scam. Letters or e-mails offer the chance to share in a percentage of millions of dollars that a so-called government official is trying to transfer out of a foreign country in exchange for money, bank-account numbers or other information from the victim.
Investment scams: Promises of riches that don't pan out in day trading, oil and gas leases, gold and gems, FCC licenses and more.
Source: Federal Trade Commission
Copyright (c) 2006, Seattle Times
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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