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Program aims to hang up telephone fraud

| Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004

Nikki Miller said her 77-year-old maternal grandmother was convinced that $23,800 in fees and taxes was a small price to pay to collect on an $876,000 Jamaican lottery prize.

But the offer was too good to be true for the Brookline woman, whom Miller declined to identify. She ended up losing the money in a telemarketing scam.

"I was shocked to hear it happened to someone in my family," said Miller, also of Brookline. "They really had her convinced."

And they are still on the loose.

Citing Miller's grandmother as an example of the growing reach of telemarketing fraud, postal inspectors and U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan on Friday announced "Dialing for Dollars," a new information campaign for consumers who might be targeted. The campaign is part of Operation Roaming Charge, an investigation by the federal Department of Justice, and has resulted in 100 arrests in the United States and another 35 abroad.

Buchanan said anyone who suspects telemarketing fraud should call local police to begin an investigation.

The news conference was at Asbury Heights, an assisted-living community in Mt. Lebanon, because the elderly frequently fall victim to telemarketing and mail fraud, Buchanan said. But the scammers don't target just the elderly.

"Anyone with a telephone can become a victim of telemarketing fraud," she said.

Tom Lilly, a volunteer with the Senior Action Coalition, talked about an 88-year-old Pittsburgh area woman who was scammed twice. The woman, whom Lilly would not identify, sent more than $80,000 to Canada, first to win a prize, and then in an effort to recover the money. The coalition represents several local groups that are advocates for the elderly.

Lilly said the woman was embarrassed to have been taken. Buchanan said that stigma is something victims need to overcome for successful prosecution.

"It is very common for seniors to feel like they don't want people to know they've been duped," said Buchanan, herself a victim of identity theft on an April trip to San Francisco.

Postal inspectors responded to 80,000 mail fraud complaints last year, and already have responded to nearly that many this year. Telemarketing scams cost Americans $40 billion annually.

"We have to reach our seniors," Lilly said. "If we don't, someone else will."

Additional Information:

Don't be a victim

Red flags from telephone solicitors:

  • Promises of large returns on initial investments

  • Pressure to make decisions quickly due to limited availability

  • Snap answers for every question

    If you decide to invest:

  • Take your time

  • Check the firm with the Better Business Bureau or state Attorney General's Office

  • Get details of the offer in writing

    Source: U.S. Postal Service

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