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Published: Thursday, May 19, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

The top scams and how to recognize them

To a lonely person, getting mail holds promise of contact. Maybe someone sent a postcard. Fetching the mail is a high point of the day, but danger lurks. Beware sweepstakes envelopes that promise riches. Could it be true? Is money or a prize waiting to be claimed? Those letters are scams. They aim to take money out of a pocket, not put money in.

Mail fraud is a federal offense. And yet, the AARP estimates, every year $40 billion is lost nationwide to such fraud. Half of the victims are people over 50.

Of the top scams this year, 20.5 percent involve sweepstakes, prizes and free-gift letters, according to the National Consumers League.
In Washington, state Adult Protective Services year after year reports that the largest number of substantiated elder-abuse cases are attempts to get money.

Listen to a scammer at work

Actors working with investigators pose as seniors, dealing with scam calls. Listen in these audio clips:
"Unclaimed money"
"Mr. Bully"
"Mr. Dow"
"Gold coin"
"Canadian lottery"

Mail scam tipoffs

• Any lottery that involves a foreign country and is conducted through the mail is illegal.

• If it requires you to send money up front to get a promised amount of money, it's a scam.

• The chances of you winning something in the mail are about the same as being struck by lightning.

• It is illegal for any company to require you to make a purchase or spend money in order to play a sweepstakes.

Help a senior avoid being victimized

• Convince them that the caller does not care about them and wants to steal their life savings.

• Help them understand why they are vulnerable: Seniors are trusting and might consider it rude to hang up on callers. Callers can be friendly or bring excitement, they try to wear victims down, and their pitches can sound superficially real.

• Explain the red flags and how the scams work. There's a promise of easy money, but you must act now and pay a few hundred dollars up front via wire transfer or a courier. Callers will bully or be verbally abusive.

• Learn some warning signs yourself. They might be victims, or vulnerable, if they get mail for sweepstakes, lotteries and other contests; they get calls from strangers telling them they won; have difficulty paying bills; and make wire transfers to companies or other countries.

Resources
Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission: 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY 1-866-653-4261. Read more about sweepstakes fraud and other scams here.

Western Union Fraud Hotline: 1-800-448-1492

• United States Postal Inspection Service Mail Fraud Complaint: Click here to print a form and send it by mail.

Arm yourself
• National do not call registry: 1-888-382-1222; TTY 1-866-290-4326.

• Senior Services of Snohomish County, Victims of Crime Assistance Program (focuses on financial crimes): Fraud information at 1-425-513-1900 or 1-800-422-2024, or TTD 1-425-347-7997. Email: seniorinfo@sssc.org.

• Washington State Attorney General website has updates on scams, ID theft and other consumer protection information.

• AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center: 1-800-646-2283. Get AARP's free "Weapons of Fraud" booklet to identify popular scams and learn how to protect yourself. Click here or order by calling AARP's Fraud Fighter Call Center toll-free at 1-800-646-2283, or by sending an email to aarpwa@aarp.org. Be sure to include your first and last name, telephone number, mailing address and email address. Allow at least 14 working days for delivery.

• Watch AARP's "Weapons of Fraud" video -- part 1 andpart 2, a good overview of mail and phone scams. It shows various con artists talking about how they bilked folks over the phone. It also lists ways they trick victims, including making victims believe they have authority and that others have won prizes.

• National Consumer League Fraud Fighter website: www.fraud.org. Download their free brochure, "They Can't Hang Up," in English or Spanish to learn about why seniors are vulnerable.


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