Avoiding Scams By Phone or Mail

At a time of life when many seniors rely heavily on their savings, it is especially important that they be careful about who they entrust with private financial information. Many of us are bombarded daily with ads and solicitations pushing the latest deals we “can’t afford to miss.” With all the information we receive, it is important to distinguish between legitimate offers and the scams.

Many scams today specifically target seniors. They are often conducted by telemarketers, or arrive in the mailboxes of potential targets. These scams might include free prize offers, vacation bargains, lottery tickets, and inexpensive health care products. On average, fake deals like these have defrauded seniors out of at least 2.6 billion dollars per year–– although many believe this number to be much higher.

What can seniors do to protect themselves? The bottom line is that we should all exercise great caution before giving out any private information–– this includes anything related to a credit card, a bank account, insurance information or Medicare ID. When confronted with offers from telemarketers or by mail, remember that a healthy dose of skepticism is the best approach to keeping your money safe and secure.


Telemarketing Scams

Telemarketing scams are among the most prevalent scams targeting seniors. Fraudsters aim to exploit the polite and trusting nature of seniors, and thereby persuade them into doing as they say–– this will ultimately include agreeing to an immediate purchase. Before giving out any private financial information over the phone, learn as much as you can from the caller–– the name and phone number of the salesperson; the name, number and address of the organization; and the organization’s business license number. Even if the telemarketer seems legitimate, tell them you will be back in touch–– never make a purchase immediately. Check out the business yourself with your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, state attorney general, or National Fraud Information Center. Subjecting telemarketers to these hurdles is worthwhile and likely to save you a significant amount of money.

Remember that legitimate businesses rarely call consumers unsolicited–– they are more likely to make use of mass media (television or internet) for advertising.

On its website, the FBI has posted a list of typical lines you might hear from a fraudster:

“You must act now, or the offer won’t be good.” This is an attempt to pressure you into acting quickly and unreflectively–– don’t fall for it!

 “You’ve won a free gift, vacation or prize–– you just have to pay for postage and handling, convenience fees, or taxes.” Any attempt to get you to pay for a “free” prize is a ploy.  Furthermore, the caller is breaking federal law if they tell you that the payment is for taxes.


“You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by courier.” Once your financial information is given over the phone, it is virtually impossible to recover the money or track down the perpetrator. Likewise, a courier who picks up your cash in person can even more easily vanish without a trace. Never agree to have a courier from an unfamiliar business come to your house to pick up cash.

“You don’t need to check out the company with anyone.” In this case the scammer is hiding the fact that his or her business is illegitimate.

If you hear any of these lines over the phone, just say “no thank you,” and hang up.


Mail Scams

Common mail scams include invitations to participate in sweepstakes (which are fake) or foreign lotteries (which are illegal). In the case of the sweepstakes offer, you may be asked to buy magazine subscriptions or inexpensive jewelry, which will “automatically enter you in the sweepstakes.” Not only will you not see any winnings, but you will also see a lot more junk mail like this once you have taken the bait; your name will be put on an “easy-target” list, which scammers buy and sell from one another.

In the foreign lottery scam, you may receive an authentic-looking check that says you have won the lottery in a foreign country. The accompanying note will instruct you to wire a portion of your winnings for taxes or other fees. Alternatively, the mailing might invite you to send money for a “special chance” to win the foreign lottery. Both versions are scams, as it is illegal to buy or sell foreign lottery tickets in the U.S. If you receive any foreign lottery mailings, the best thing to do is give them to your local postmaster.

To report or inquire about telemarketing or mail scams, you can contact the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Public Inquiry & Assistance Center Hotline at (617) 727-8400.

You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).