Fraud Watch | It's absolutely free

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Too good to be true ... one of the most accurate comments regarding scams. Con artists rely on our naivete and attraction to the word "free" or offers stating that the only cost is shipping fees. Recent alerts from the Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau and state attorneys general warn consumers to beware of free offers. Most common among these are products offered as limited time deals on items ranging from small appliances to clothing to electronics. The offer is most frequently made by phone or email and emphasizes that the item or items are absolutely free; all that is needed is payment of a small shipping and handling charge.

Other offers promote "free" vacations that may require a small booking fee.

Quite often these are fraudulent. The true purpose is to conduct a phishing expedition collecting personal data including credit account information. Often, these scams try to collect contact information which is then sold to other criminals. In some cases, the vacation deals disguise high-pressure sales pitches for time share; enjoy a three-day, two-night luxury accommodation and all you need to do is listen to a short presentation (note: I took the bait and traveled to a vacation site in Virginia. The high pressure sales pitch emphasized that it wasn't a high pressure event but it ended up lasting six hours).

Protect yourself from becoming a victim of a scam or a purchase resulting from pressure tactics. The first tip is to extend your antennae and beware of any offer that appears to be too good to be true. Most legitimate companies run sales but if a deal is hard to believe, you need to take a second look. Real companies must make a profit to survive. That simply cannot happen if they sell products or services below cost or give them away.

A second key tip is to research the offer before agreeing to anything. This tip should apply to all significant purchases and to any so-called deals. Check with the Better Business Bureau and your state consumer protection office to see if there are any complaints against the company.

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Next, research the company offering the deal and verify that it is a legitimate offer. Con artists are excellent impostors. Whether on the phone, in the mail, or on the internet, fraudulent information is easy to fabricate and distribute. Some of the best scams today on the internet are impostor websites that appear to be the real McCoy. This means it is necessary to find "real" contact information and verify the offer using a reliable phone number or website.

Make any purchases with a credit card. Credit card purchases are traceable. Consumers are able to dispute and avoid fraudulent charges. Credit card purchases also provide verifiable records of payment should the vendor claim that you never paid for the purchase. Never make payment using gift cards such as iTunes or generic cash cards. Requests for this form of payment is a virtual guarantee that a scam is in progress.

Finally, beware of any vendor requests for personal information such as Social Security number, driver's license number, birth dates, family names or other identifiable details. These pieces of data are not necessary for a purchase and once again are often indicators that fraudsters are at work. A healthy degree of skepticism on "free" offers may be the best protection from becoming a victim of fraud.

Fraud Alert - Many people have received robocalls claiming that their credit card was charged by Amazon for a purchase. The call provides a call back phone number for obtaining a refund on the charge. Once on the phone with you, the con artist will attempt to gain access to your computer or collect credit card details (number, expiration date, security code). Hang up the phone and do not call back. Critically, do not provide any information or provide access to your computer.

Interested in a presentation for your church, synagogue, club or organization? Comments or questions? Contact egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. He produces a feature CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland.


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