Senior citizens help identify potential mail, telephone fraud

January 29, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is putting con artists on alert -- and he's turning to seniors for help.

His office is spearheading the state's first widespread effort to crack down on mail and telemarketing fraud with a program called Senior Sting, in which volunteers help to identify potential schemes.

Yesterday, about two dozen seniors gathered at Bykota Senior Center in Towson to sort through mail solicitations and telephone logs that 500 seniors collected in their homes in November. The findings will be examined by the state's attorney's office.

"These scammers rob consumers of billions of dollars every year, often targeting elder Americans," said Curran, who met with the seniors yesterday. "We want scam artists to know that Maryland is a hostile place to do their so-called business."

Senior Sting is a collaborative project involving the state Office on Aging, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the American Association of Retired Persons, the Maryland Retired Teachers Association and other groups.

Yesterday, the seniors sifted through thousands of letters offering gimmicks such as free trips, prizes, business investments, sweepstakes and other get-rich-quick schemes. They divided the envelopes into categories, placing them into cardboard boxes.

Dessie Tegtmeier, an 81-year-old Towson resident who was opening mail yesterday, couldn't believe how many freebies were being touted.

"I won a prize," she said, joking, before tossing the offer into a box.

As for her junk mail, Tegtmeier said she doesn't bother with it. "I get rid of it," she said. "By this time, I know people don't give me much for nothing."

John McDonough, 79, president of the Bykota Senior Center Council, agreed.

"There's no free lunch," he said. "It's a shame some people don't realize it."

At another table, Genevieve Mooney, 69, bemoaned the amount of mail she receives at her Timonium home. "It's a constant rain of begging for donations," she said. "It goes right in the trash."

With the sting operation, Curran hopes to educate consumers about unscrupulous solicitors who often prey on seniors.

According to a recent survey by AARP, more than half of the fraud victims were age 50 or older. Each year, consumers lose an estimated $40 billion to fraudulent telemarketers alone, Curran said.

His office often does not learn of schemes until people have lost money, he said.

"Now, we want to find out beforehand," Curran said. "We want to make sure no senior is stung."

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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