Senior citizen targeted by telephone scam

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tribune News Staff

Alma Jean Knight of Marked Tree was enjoying a quiet afternoon when she received a call that could have costs her hundreds of dollars. However, Knight was one of the lucky ladies who had done her homework and knew what she needed to do to protect her identity and her bank account.

Knight, 69, was the target of a telephone scam that many senior citizens fall victim to each day. When Knight answered the phone, the caller identified himself as being with the security division of Unico Bank. He told her he was calling to verify a withdrawl someone was trying to make from her account in the amount of $267.

The man then read out Knight's routing number and an account number. She said the routing number matched perfectly, but only the first few numbers of the account number were the same.

"I told him that wasn't my account number," Knight said. "He then told me we needed to get that straightened out and he asked me what the correct numbers were."

After giving the information and hanging up the phone, Knight remembered articles she had read about not giving out her information over the telephone.

"I know better than to do that, but he was so convincing," Knight said. "Especially with knowing my bank and my routing number and part of my bank account number."

However, Knight knew it was better to be safe than sorry.

"Something told me I needed to call the bank and asked them if they had anyone that does security with Unico Bank," she said.

The bank informed her that she had been the victim of a telephone scam. Knight went to the bank, closed her checking account and went to the police station. And she stopped by the paper, of course, to share her story so that others wouldn't be the victim of the same scam.

"All I have is my social security to live on, and that's not much," she said. "I know there are other people who are the same way. It makes you afraid to answer the telephone."

Knight said the number that appeared on her caller ID was 1-800-931-9213. Police are currently investigating the call.

According to the Federal Trade commission, telemarketing fraud is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. Every year, thousands of consumers lose as little as a few dollars to as much as their life savings to telephone con artists.

"Telemarketing Sales Rule, a law that can help you protect yourself from abusive and deceptive telemarketers," said the FTC website. "Unlike most other crimes, telemarketing fraud requires one essential element: victim participation. We're all potential targets, because fraud isn't limited by race, ethnic background, gender, age, education or income. But, if you're age 60 or older, you may be a special target for people who sell bogus products and services by phone. The best way to protect yourself is to know the differences between legitimate offers and fraudulent ones."

So how does one find themselves the target of such scams over and over again? Operators may get a person's number a telephone directory, a mailing list or what fraudsters call a "sucker list." Sucker lists contain information about people who have responded to previous telemarketing solicitations, like their name, phone number and how much money they spent. The lists are bought and sold by promoters. They are invaluable to scam artists, who believe that consumers who have been deceived once are vulnerable to additional scams.

Fraudulent telemarketers try to take advantage of older people on the theory that they may be more trusting and polite toward strangers. Older women living alone are special targets of these scam artists. Here are some reasons people become victims of telemarketing fraud:

*Often it's hard to know whether a sales call is legitimate. Telephone con artists are skilled at sounding believable -- even when they're really telling lies.

*Sometimes telephone con artists target the lonely. They may call day after day -- until one thinks a friend, not a stranger, is trying to sell them something.

*Some telephone salespeople have an answer for everything. People may find it hard to get them off the phone -- even if they're selling something you're not interested in -- because they don't want to be rude.

*Victims may be promised free gifts, prizes, or vacations -- or the "investment of a lifetime" -- but only if they act "right away." It may sound like a really good deal. In fact, telephone con artists are only after money. Don't give it to them.

The number one tip to avoid these types of calls is the register one's phone number -- both land lines and cell phone numbers -- with the National Do Not Call Registry registry. These free service makes it illegal for telemarketers whom one is not already doing business with to call. To register, or to get information, visit www.donotcall.gov, or call toll-free 1-888-382-1222 (TTY: 1-866-290-4236) from the phone you want to register. You will receive fewer telemarketing calls within three months of registering your number.

The FTC also offers these tips for avoiding scams:

*Don't be pressured to make an immediate decision.

*Don't give your credit card, checking account or Social Security number over the phone. Your bank or credit card company will already have that information if they are the ones that are contacting you.

*Don't pay for something merely because you'll get a "free gift."

*Get all information in writing before you agree to buy.

*Check out a charity before you give. Ask how much of your donation actually goes to the charity. Ask that written information be sent to you so you can make an informed giving decision.

*Don't invest your money with an unknown caller who insists you make up your mind immediately.

*If the offer is an investment, check with your state securities regulator to see if it's properly registered.

*Don't send cash by messenger or overnight mail. If you use cash rather than a credit card in the transaction, you may lose your right to dispute fraudulent charges.

*Make sure you know the per minute charge for any 900 number call you make.

*Be cautious of statements that you've won a prize -- particularly if the caller says you must send money to claim it.

*Don't agree to any offer where you have to pay a registration or shipping fee to receive a "prize."

*Check out unsolicited offers with the Better Business Bureau, local consumer protection agency, or state Attorney General's office before you agree to send money.

*Beware of offers to "help" you recover money you may have lost previously. Be wary of callers saying they are law enforcement officers who will help you get your money back "for a fee."

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