Same old story – new scams every day
December 1, 2020
I recall a joke from the last millennium where pranksters would call a senior on the phone, pretending to be from the phone company.
“We’re working in your neighborhood and have some extra phone line. If you’ll yank hard on your phone cord you can have some extra line for free.”
Supposedly the unsuspecting victim would yank on the cord and their line would go dead.
Seniors can be the disproportionate butt of jokes. Some are funny and others are hurtful.
Today’s scams are considerably more damaging than the jokes and pranks of old. Our best defense is knowledge. How can today’s seniors be assured of fair treatment in our daily business?
One area is online ordering. Even if we came to it reluctantly, most of us order more online than we ever have. It saves going to the store, especially during the pandemic. As simple as online ordering can be, the result can be more fraught. Almost 30% of online orders are returned, versus only 10% of items we purchase in-store. Online return credit can take a month or more. It may stall without frequent phone follow-up. Be sure to retain all the relevant information such as the order number and tracking number.
With the difficulties of the pandemic, some retailers are going dark or moving into bankruptcy. This makes returns difficult if not impossible. If you’ve paid by credit card you’ll be better off, since their contracts protect consumers more than debit cards. For continuing disputes, search online at the Federal Trade Commission at Consumer.ftc.gov. Then click on Money & Credit then Credit &Loans, look for Disputing Credit Card charges.
I know there were scammers before email and online ordering, but it seems today’s scams center on our computers. A recent one purports to help you retrieve undelivered email through your Outlook Web Mail service. This type of scam is called a “phishing” campaign, where the crooks are trying to steal your information.
The bogus email presents a list of these supposedly undelivered emails and asks you to respond one by one whether you’d like to receive them. Similar scams use the excuse of account cancellations or file deletions. Regardless of their excuse or your response, they lead you to a login form which gathers your information. Once they have your login and other credentialing information, they can be used to scam you later.
To prevent this type of scam, always examine the URL before you click on a link. If you highlight the URL in the browser address box, you can see whether it’s leading to the correct site. One little misspelling could mean you’re being directed to a bogus site. If there’s anything fishy, contact the system administrator.
Even old-fashioned mail scams are still alive and well. Have you ever received something in the mail you don’t think you ordered? Maybe you’ve forgotten a legitimate purchase, or maybe it’s a scam. Rather than pay for it, call the company to discuss the dispute. If it was not your specific order, the onus is on them to collect it if they want it back.
A Los Angeles Times reporter, David Lazarus, followed such a story last year. An 86-year-old retired engineer received a package in the mail: four health-related books along with a bill for $99.60. He eventually contacted Lazarus. After investigating the situation, the reporter traced the source of the books to a survey the man had completed, purportedly from a world class university.
The cover letter, with school’s name and seal prominently displayed, said the recipient was among “a select group of Americans” being asked “for their insight regarding vital healthcare issues.” The survey set up this ask, which was not really an ask. It promised to deliver “FREE White Papers Preview Selection” after completing the survey, entitling him to select as many as “FOUR of the White Papers listed below for a no-risk 30-Day FREE preview.” The word “free,” all in capital letters, appeared six or more times in the four-page cover letter and survey, according to Lazarus. In tiny, senior-invisible text, it mentioned that taking possession of the papers signed him up for more white papers each month.
It turned out that the health books were real and possibly desirable, but the university had made a poor choice by way of a marketing company with scam artist methodology. It took an investigative reporter and complaints from dozens of seniors to straighten it out among all the parties.
To prevent this angst, use a magnifying glass (on your cell phone!) to read all the fine print. If it’s some sort of “club,” with regular purchasing or notification obligations, know that the Federal Trade Commission says, “federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.”
“If you receive merchandise that you didn’t order,” says the FTC, “you have a legal right to keep it as a free gift.”
Consumer law is under attack, but it is still stronger than it was years ago. Do not assume you made a mistake, and don’t blame yourself. If a company insists you owe them money but you believe you do not, solicit the help of a friend, family, or consumer advocate. Your willingness to stand up is good for all of us. It will make it harder for the bad guys to yank on our cords.
Karen Telleen-Lawton is a Certified Financial Planner in Santa Barbara, California.