Watch for phone fraud Booklet, state registry aim to help stop public from being swindled

Elderly man lost $50,000

With holidays' extra charity requests come chances for schemes

November 28, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

They're back. Telephones are ringing, and telemarketers are at your ear.

Beware, say the experts. Most calls requesting donations for charities are legitimate, but some are frauds. You could lose a few dollars -- or $50,000, as one Towson man did this year.

The first rule: Never do business on the phone or give your credit card number to a caller.

Ask the caller to mail you information on the product, charity or offer. The information should include its name, address and phone number. Know the charity's mission and how it plans to use any donation. Ask for proof that your gift is tax-deductible.

"Absolutely, absolutely, ask them to mail you their material -- legitimate groups will do it," says Howard Shapiro, spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, which just began Operation Missed Giving, a national consumer-education program to fight telephone fund-raising fraud.

The FTC, Maryland and 39 other states and the American Association of Retired Persons are promoting awareness and, in some cases, prosecuting allegedly fraudulent telemarketers.

On Monday, beginning in Eastern Shore communities, Maryland's Secretary of State John T. Willis will start his swing around the state to warn residents of the possibility of phony charities among the expected holiday increase in requests.

Watch out for schemes, especially aimed at older people or women living alone, others warn.

An elderly Towson man lost $50,000 last spring because of a phone scheme promising lottery winnings.

Baltimore County Council Chairman Stephen G. Sam Moxley told the council the man's story to illustrate the value of the county Department of Aging's new anti-fraud booklet, "They're Calling and They Won't Hang Up."

A lottery scheme

A phone caller told the man he had won the Australian lottery. More calls followed, with news of winnings in other lotteries. But, the callers said, he would need to pay taxes and other fees before getting the earnings. Before it was over he had written $10,000 in checks and had $40,000 in charges on his credit cards.

"He got on everyone's sucker list," said the man's son, who requested his name not be used.

"I noticed it, but my father fought us for a week, saying he did it for his grandchildren's education and the winnings would still come in. He was embarrassed when he realized what happened. He's not a stupid man, he was trying to help. I've recovered $33,000 so far," the son said.

"My advice to children is pay attention to the finances of your elderly parents. My advice to everyone is be careful when strangers ask for money on the phone."

Other common phone schemes include prize offers, investments, travel packages, vitamins and other health product sales. There are "recovery calls," in which crooks offer to recover money you lost in other schemes for a fee.

Charles L. Fisher Jr., director of the county aging department, said phone fraud is not seasonal. "Unfortunately, it's become commonplace all year round. The main thing to remember is, don't make a decision to give on the spur of the moment."

His department has distributed 180,000 copies of its anti-fraud booklet. The U.S. Department of Justice plans to use the booklet as a national model.

Nikki Trella, director of the charitable organizations division in Willis' department, said 400 people ask her office each month if a charity is registered with the state. Some also ask about its mission or finances.

The toll-free number is 800-825-4510 and the agency's Web page is www.sos.state.md.us. An agency's registration in Maryland does not imply government approval or endorsement, she noted.

Trella, whose office puts out a free pamphlet, "Giving Wisely," was in Washington for the "Missed Giving" announcement Nov. 11. At the time, the FTC announced it had begun 39 law enforcement and regulatory actions against phony charities around the country.

"Everyone had concerns that reputable charities shouldn't be hurt by a few bad apples. We encourage people to give, but give wisely," Trella said.

Willis praised legitimate charities but in doing so showed how much money is available to be given to the state's 4,100 registered nonprofits: more than $8 billion in total income for fiscal year 1997.

Precautions

Willis endorsed major points of national, state and other official alerts to prevent fraud:

Call your local police, fire department, sheriff's office or similar agencies if funds are solicited on their behalf. Ask them if they're aware of the requests and how donations are to be used.

Watch out for similar-sounding names. Some fake nonprofits use names that closely resemble those of legitimate groups.

Refuse high-pressure appeals. Legitimate fund-raisers won't demand you give on the spot, or they shouldn't. Beware of nonprofits eager to send couriers to collect donations immediately.

Give generously, but on your own terms. Make an annual giving plan and stick to it. Check out the charities you want to support. Know how your dollars are spent.

Pub Date: 11/28/98

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