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Congratulations! You are one of 50 lucky winners of a luxurious five-day, four-night cruise to the Bahamas. Enjoy the sand, surf, all meals, accommodations and transportation fee of charge! Plus, if you purchase a plane ticket for a fellow traveler at a discounted price, your companion can enjoy this dream vacation, too! Simply call this toll-fee number within 48 hours to qualify.
If you’ve ever called that number, you’ve probably entered into one of the nation’s biggest schemes: telemarketing fraud. Each year, American consumers lose approximately $40 billion due to fraudulent sales via the telephone. And although telemarketing is a legitimate sales technique, approximately 14,000, or 10%, of the 140,000 telemarketing firms in the United States may be fraudulent, says Cleo Manuel, vice president of public affairs at the National Consumers League in Washington, D.C.
In the past, illegal telemarketers made the initial contact with their targets. “Our advice was, don’t accept or make any offer if you didn’t initiate the call,” says Manuel. “But a couple of years ago, con artists began to get around that by prompting consumers to make the call, either through placing clever advertisements or sending postcards telling them they’d won a prize.”
These illegal operations are typically run out of boiler-rooms, or low-rent offices and motel rooms where salespeople call prospects. Once consumers succumb to a fraudulent offer, their names are put on a mooch list so that telemarketers can “reload,” or target them again. “They hit you up for $100 and then three months later, hit you up for a couple of thousand,” explains Tim Healy, an FBI supervisory special agent for economic crime and telemarketing fraud.
Schemes to beware of include prize offers or free vacations, business opportunities, credit cards, magazine sales and solicitations for charitable donations. “It doesn’t matter what the product is,” Healy once heard a con man testify. “I could sell dirt. As long as I leave ‘them with the impression they’re going to make more than they invest, I can get them.”
You don’t have to be one of those victims. By knowing a few of the following common schemes, you can stay one step ahead of con artists and beat them at their own game.
Beware of free vacation offers. Like the example described, fraudulent promoters may say you’ve won a free trip. To qualify, however, you’re required to attend a sales promotion or buy a travel club membership. The promoters may insist that you book a discounted trip or provide a credit card number and pay immediately–all telltale signs of fraud. “Be skeptical,” warns Healy. “If they’re asking for money up front, don’t do it.”
Be leery of dialing additional numbers, You may be asked to dial a number with an 809 area code that is answered by a voice mail system prompting you to stay on the line. Instead of being billed a standard rate, you’ll be charged $5-$7 per minute.
You could also be asked to dial a tollfree number, but when you press numbers for more information, you are actually