Elliott Greenblott | Fraud watch: Sorting worthy campaigns from the scammers

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Once again, criminals are after your wallet by appealing to your sense of fairness, justice, and the need to personally act. Recently, this column addressed COVID-19 scams. While these continue and new health care scams are regularly surfacing, new appeals target the need many feel to reach out and support the Black Lives Matter movement or demonstrate a commitment to oppose systemic racism and injustice.

Con artists are basically students of psychology and human nature. They understand the emotions and movements of the day and rapidly target those that promise the greatest return. They seek to create what they refer to as "the ether," a heightened emotional state, where the intended victim abandons rational thought and logic in favor of immediate response. This is no different than legitimate commercial appeals such as what we see from advertisements for the ASPCA or St. Jude's Medical.

Whether the scammer works via the internet or the telephone, there are universal techniques persuasion tactics: 1) Verbally and visually appeal to emotional responses; 2) Demonstrate social consensus by indicating widespread support for their campaign; 3) Emphasize a degree of authority or credibility in their efforts. These techniques are coupled with a specific message of urgency which in itself is no different from that of recognized charities or even political campaigns. Where the criminal and the legitimate charity part ways in when it comes to the method of support that is promoted. Beneficial groups must account for their fundraising and therefore ask supporters to make payment by credit card or check. The scammer prefers untraceable funds so often requests payment be made by cash, money transfer, gift card, or Bitcoin.

New charities and crowdfunding projects constantly appear. Do some research before you donate. Traditionally, you could check out the charity through reliable rating web sites such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar. While you can attempt to do research through traditional rating systems, this generally will not work with new groups that do not have a history that can be chronicled. Instead, contact organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or state government offices such as the secretary of state or the attorney general. Most states require that organizations operating in the state must register so check for registrations and whether or not there are any complaints filed. Another way to conduct research is obtain the name of the cause and type the name into a computer search engine or browser address line followed by the word scam, rating, review, or complaint.

It may be difficult, given emotion or perceived urgency of the appeal, but slow down! Don't take any action until you have taken time to rationally consider the request. The criminal will want to put you and keep you in a heightened emotional state while you are vulnerable. In addition, he or she may be persistent with calls and emails if there is a sense that you will respond positively. Postpone making an immediate decision and in the case of a phone call, ask the caller to either call back at a different time or mail you a pledge card and information. If the caller or the email notifies you that you need to fulfill a pledge that you made, either state that you changed your mind or ask that you be sent a copy of the original pledge you made before honoring it.

Research notes that while the scammer will pose many questions to obtain personal information, the intended victim asks few. Always ask questions: How, specifically will my donation be used? Where will the money be used? Is the donation I make tax deductible? Who is running this program and how can I contact him, her or others directly? Remember, the best personal protection from scammers is having a logical, rational approach to dealing with these criminals.

AARP Fraud Watch provides live presentations via virtual meeting technology. If you belong to a group interested in a presentation, have questions or concerns, or would like to become a program volunteer, contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a feature CATV program, "Mr. Scammer," distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland (www.gnat-tv.org).

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