Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Avoid these common scams

By Laura Catalano,

Special to The Mercury

Most people probably don't think of themselves as likely victims of scams, but the truth is almost anyone can fall prey to fraudulent schemes. Con artists are prevalent and often very clever, and their scams target a wide range of people.

Their most common victims, though, are senior citizens.

"Times are tough and money is just so tight for some senior citizens that they are trying to get any little edge they can," explained John Tobin, investigator in charge for the Montgomery County Department of Consumer Affairs.

That makes them more likely to take the bait when someone offers a good deal on a home improvement project, or a big company sends "prize" money that requires payment. What's more, con artists tend to seek out senior citizens, knowing that they harken back to a simpler, more trusting era.

"Criminals think of them as being nicer, more naive, gullible even," explained Reggie Wade, public information officer for the Philadelphia division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

While that's alarming, the good news is that fraudsters can be kept at bay. Even though thousands of different scams exist, one golden rule can help consumers avoid most of them:

"If it sounds or looks too good to be true, it probably is," advised Tobin.

Below are some common schemes, and advice on how to steer clear of them:

The Scam: Home Repair Rip-Offs

Every spring, Tobin receives hundreds of calls from people who have been ripped-off by driveway paving and roof repair scams.

"We used to call them the gypsies," said Tobin. "They drive around in pickup trucks and tell people they are doing driveways or fixing roofs in the neighborhood and they could see theirs is in need of repair."

Typically, these "gypsies" offer the homeowner what sounds like a great deal.

"They're very good at knowing how much they can get out of people. Sometimes they charge $100, sometimes $300," Tobin said.

Their services are really worth nothing, though, because they don't actually do repairs. They climb onto a roof and hang a few shingles that aren't needed. Or they throw kerosene on a driveway to make it look shiny, and after a single rain, it washes away.

How to avoid it: The best way to determine whether a contractor is actually a con artist is to demand a written contract, assured Tobin. The contract should specify a breakdown of work to be completed, and include the business name and address. It should also contain a three-day right to cancel, which will allow the homeowner time to check up on a contractor's credentials.

As a rule, Tobin advises against hiring any door-to-door solicitors because they are, at best, organized scams, and at worst criminals casing the neighborhood.

How to check: Local code enforcement officers have lists of contractors who must be registered and insured in order to receive building permits. You can also call the Better Business Bureau or Tobin's office to learn whether scammers are in the neighborhood, or if complaints have been made against a contractor.

The Scam: Sweepstakes Fraud

A letter appears in the mailbox informing the recipient that he or she has won a large sum of money in a sweepstakes. To collect it, the recipient must send a check for several hundred dollarsto cover taxes and other associated costs.

Often these letters look very legitimate, with detailed listing of what the check will cover. The person sends the check, but never receives any "prize money."

How to avoid it: Sweepstakes winners are never informed of their winnings by mail, or e-mail for that matter. And genuine sweepstakes never require people to send checks in advance, since taxes are paid by the recipient directly to the Internal Revenue Service. Therefore, any such letters are likely scams and should be reported to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

How to check: No matter how authentic a letter appears to be, check with the USPIS or call the Fraud Complaint Center for advice before sending any money.

The Scam: Nigerian Letter or Check Fraud

This scam is similar to sweepstakes fraud but even more sinister. Once again, the recipient is informed of having won a large sum of money, usually in a foreign lottery. In this case, the letter includes a check for $10,000 or more.

The check appears to be legitimate. The person is instructed to cash it, and then to send back $500 or $1,000 to cover taxes and other costs.

There are various versions of this scam. One common one is the Nigerian letter, in which the sender claims to be a Nigerian official trying to illegally transfer millions of dollars out of his country and offering to share the money with the recipient. Again, the recipient must send money, but also a bank account number.

People who fall victim to check fraud find out very quickly that they've been scammed.

"Within days, the bank sends the account holder a letter saying, 'You gave us a bad check,'" said Wade. By then, though, some people have used the $10,000 check to purchase items or pay bills.

Not only are they out the money they sent the scammer, but any money deducted from the fake check, as well.

"The account holder is held liable. It's really sad," said Wade.

How to avoid it: No matter how real a check looks, don't cash it. And never send money to a lottery or sweepstakes firm; if they are authentic, they won't ask for a check.

Always follow the golden tenet of scam avoidance:

"If it looks too good to be true, it is. It's not just anybody who's going to receive a check for $20,000 or $30,000," said Wade.

How to check: Call the USPIS or go online to a Web site called FakeChecks.org for details on what to look for in fake check scams.

The Scam: Telemarketing Fraud

People over age 60 are, unfortunately, most at risk for this type of scam. A caller claims to be selling a service or product, such as discounted vitamins or a low-cost vacation. Generally they demand money or a credit card number, and in some cases ask for a bank account number.

They use high-pressure tactics, such as saying that the offer will only be good if the person acts immediately.

In some cases, the caller says a prize has been won, but the person must send money to cover shipping and handling.

Usually, all claims are bogus, and the person will never receive any products they send money for. They may, in addition to losing money, also be victims of identity theft.

How to avoid it: Ask the caller to send you information about their products or services. Any legitimate business will be able to do this.

Also, never agree to send money to cover costs associated with a prize, since this is usually the sign of a scam.

Perhaps most important, get on the federal and state Do Not Call List, recommended Tobin.

"If you continue to get calls from telemarketers after 60 days, report it to the state attorney general's office," he said.

How to check: Fraudulent telemarketers try to get you to order their goods and services without checking up on them. Make it a policy to check out all unfamiliar companies with a consumer protection agency.

The Scam: Internet Auction Fraud

Internet auction fraud is the most commonly reported Internet crime offense, according to a 2007 report by the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Typically such scams inform a bidder that he or she has won an auction item. The consumer sends payment but never receives the item.

In some cases, criminals not only take the person's money but use acquired credit card information for identity theft as well.

How to avoid it: The Federal Trade Commission recommends several tips for avoiding this type of fraud. Most importantly, familiarize yourself with any auction site to learn exactly what protection it provides for buyers. Secondly, check out a seller and be wary of any that try to lure you off the auction site with a better deal.

If the seller requires an online payment service you've never heard of, try to find more information about the service online. Don't use it if you can't find any data.

Finally, never provide Social Security, driver's license, credit card or bank account information unless you know a company is legitimate.

How to check: Contact the state attorney general's office to report a complaint, or the federal trade commission.

The Scam: Identity Theft

A person gives away private information, such as Social Security, credit card and bank account numbers. That information is used to commit fraud or other crimes.

It can happen in a number of ways. Sometimes thieves steal bills and personal information from the trash. Or they may steal a wallet or other personal information. And they may also use false pretenses to acquire personal information, such as calling and claiming to be a bank or telephone company representative.

Once a criminal has your personal information they can use it to open up new credit card accounts in your name, create counterfeit checks, even get government benefits illegally.

How to avoid it: While there's no way to completely protect yourself from identity theft, being vigilant about protecting your personal information can help. Shred all personal documents before disposing of them, and use PayPal when ordering online.

"Watch who you're giving you're information to," recommended Tobin. "Never give your Social Security number, date of birth, or even your address to someone if you don't know who you're talking to."

In fact, Tobin advises people not to give out their Social Security numbers to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary, particularly when filling out applications for things like credit cards.

How to check: The most effective way to determine if your identity has been stolen is to monitor your credit card bills and bank accounts carefully so you catch any fraudulent charges or other suspicious activity immediately.

If your identity has been stolen, file a police report and notify your credit card company or bank.

Dispute any unauthorized transactions quickly, and put a fraud alert on your credit card. Also close any account that might have been tampered with.