En español | The caller had offered a great deal. For a deposit of only $188, AARP member Tim Haynes of Chapin, S.C., saved 50 percent on a $1,000 Caribbean cruise. But months later, when he tried to reschedule the trip, he figured out that the pitchman was a crook, the cruise line didn't exist and he'd been scammed.
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With no company to challenge and the money trail cold, it was no longer a case for a consumer advocate, but rather the district attorney.
Of course, it's not Tim's fault that he was ripped off. Telemarketing fraud is a disease of the modern age, accounting for 19 percent of all fraud complaints reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2010. Many of those 84,075 victims, including Tim, could have better protected themselves against telephone fraud by remembering a few basic rules.
1. Don't Call Me. The first rule of telemarketing safety is to ignore pleas and pitches of anyone who calls you uninvited, including sales people, charities and even companies with whom you already do business. You have no way to confirm they are who they say they are. Don't rely on your caller ID, either. That can be faked.
2. Give Them Nothing. Fraudsters are hunting for information. Your best defense is to tell them nothing, and I mean nothing. If they try to confirm your name, don't tell them. If they ask if your spouse is home, don't reply. If they want to verify your address, hang up. Any bit of information you give to scammers, including even your name, can be a tool they use to part you from your money or otherwise harm you.
3. I'll Call You. If the callers insist they have to speak with you — for example, they are from your bank and need to give you important information — tell them you will call them directly. At this point, fraudsters will often offer a phone number for you to call as proof they are who they say they are. Don't believe them. Instead of accepting the phone number they offer, you're much safer looking up the number independently — in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet. If the caller says he's with a company that you're already doing business with — such as a utility or phone company — you can also call the number on the monthly billing statement.
4. Stay Alert. Even if you initiate the call, you might not be safe. Before you give any personal or financial information over the phone, check out the company's credentials — ask the person to mail you information, check with the Better Business Bureau, take a look at the company's website and ask for references.
5. Take Your Time. Scammers often try to create a false deadline. If you feel pressured to make a decision, hang up. You've spent a lifetime earning your money. You deserve a little time to choose how to spend it.
6. Be Part of the Solution. You can help prevent others from falling victim to scammers. The early warning system for the FTC is every one of us. If you've received a call, mailing or email you think might be from a scammer, report the incident to the FTC by calling its consumer hot line at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357). The FTC also has a good video on the topic.
Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.