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6 Common Door-to-Door Scams

With autumn comes a rise in front-door fraud involving magazines, meat and maintenance

  |  Door-to-door scams are among the most common crimes against people 60 and older. Why so? Retirement-age folks are more likely to be home to answer the door during the day. Usually raised to be polite, they're less likely to slam the door. And when scammed, they're less likely to report it to police or other authorities.

So don't be a victim. Keep an eye out for these common forms of front-door fraud.

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1. Magazine subscription sales. You answer your door and there's a solicitor asking you to subscribe to magazines and pay with a credit card or check. In autumn it's often described as a fundraiser for a local school. You're told it's a bargain, but often the rates are three times what you'd normally pay, and even then the magazines may never arrive.

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Adults 50+ are frequent targets of door-to-door sales scams.

The Better Business Bureau is predicting that in 2012, complaints about magazine sales will be double the number of 2011. This follows the Federal Trade Commission receiving more than 21,000 such complaints last year, double the number in 2010.

2. Meat sales. Knock, knock — this time what's on offer is prime ribs. The BBB and other groups warn that people who buy meat this way, paying up front, often complain that their orders never arrive or that the quality of what does show up is substandard.

With meat prices expected to increase in 2013 (the summer drought devastated the corn crop that's fed to livestock), you can expect these vendors to press you to "buy now" to avoid predicted hikes.

3. "Free" energy audits. Just in time for the winter heating season, self-described utility-company workers show up at your door unannounced, saying they've come to conduct a gratis inspection to see how much energy your home wastes.

Once inside, they may try to steal, especially if they've come as a pair; one diverts you while the other scoops up valuables. So unless your utility company has asked you, in advance, if you want an audit, assume it's a scam.

Meanwhile, the latest spin on this ruse: Audits offered by home-improvement hucksters who want to sell you services you probably don't need.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

4. Outdoor home maintenance. Whether they're offering roof repairs or driveway recoating, handymen hustlers proliferate in the fall. The most notorious are "woodchucks," who get their name for their frequent initial pitch to prune your trees before winter snowfalls.

While other fast-buck fraudsters come and go quickly, woodchucks prefer to stick around, finding one "necessary repair" after another to continue your financial hemorraging.

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Most good contractors are too busy to seek business at your front door.

5. Voter surveys and registration. With the upcoming election, expect campaign workers seeking your support — and maybe some "survey takers" seeking your opinions. You'll know it's a con if they solicit personal information such as your Social Security number or financial details. Canvassers from legitimate voter registration campaigns will leave forms for you to return to the relevant agency yourself. They won't ask you to fill the forms on the spot and hand them over.

Speak Out!

Run into a scam not mentioned here? Have additional tips other readers could use? Speak out on our Scams & Fraud message board.

6. Medical wellness checks. Over-60 communities are especially ripe for door-to-door offers of free medical checkups. The problem is that they may be conducted by crooks looking to glean personal or Medicare information or to do a quick robbery while you're off to the medicine cabinet to show them your prescriptions.

Bottom line for all these cons: When in doubt, keep strangers out. You're under no obligation even to answer the doorbell. If you do, never offer access to your home or wallet. Never provide answers to personal questions. Better to be rude than scammed.

Legitimate door-to-door vendors, including those collecting for charities, will usually have "leave-behind" materials for your review. With a phone call or Internet search, you can judge whether the outfit's legitimate.

And if you buy from a door-to-door seller and quickly regret it, know that federal law allows you three business days to cancel and get a full refund on most purchases of $25 or more that are made in your home. Along with a receipt, legitimate door-to-door sellers should provide you with a cancellation form. If they don't, assume you've been marked for a scam.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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