As we all know it, terrible events are happening all over the world and we want to help these organizations that are assisting areas hit the hardest by disasters with donations and other goods.  The Seasons are fast approaching as well, as we have been contacted by phone or visited in person requesting us to give, but some are just plain scams.

Here is what the Washington State Attorney General’s Office states on how to spot a scam in the making and how we can protect ourselves.

RELATIVE IN NEED SCAM

This scam usually starts with a phone call from a con posing as a grandchild in urgent need of money. Other victims have reported receiving phone calls from scammers posing as police officers or attorneys. In every case, the con says money needs to be sent immediately by Western Union or Moneygram.

RED FLAGS:

  • You’re asked to send money quickly – and secretly.
  • The call or message originates from overseas. However, you should be aware that technology allows scammers to bypass caller ID systems.
  • The person can’t or won’t answer questions that the only the real person would know.
  • Any time someone asks you to send money by Western Union or Moneygram, it’s invariably a scam. You might also be asked to send a check or money order by overnight delivery. Con artists recommend these services so they can steal your money before you realize you’ve been cheated. Money transfers can be picked up at any service location as long as the thief/recipient has the confirmation number.

TIPS:

  • Avoid volunteering information over the phone. Always ask callers to identify themselves by name and ask individuals who contact you to provide information that only you and people close to you would know.
  • Call the friend or relative claiming to need your help to confirm whether the story is true, using a phone number you know to be genuine. If you aren’t able to contact the person, call other friends or family members to confirm the situation.
  • Refuse to send money via wire transfer.
  • If you have wired money and it hasn’t been picked up yet, call the wire transfer service to cancel the transaction. Once the money has been picked up, there is no way to get it back.
  • Trust your gut.

THE CHARITY SCAM

Many people in our country, especially seniors, care deeply about others, and they want to do something good for those who are less fortunate. Unbelievably, criminals will use these altruistic feelings to feather their own nests. These con criminals will make you think you are giving to a good cause but the result is that the money goes to them.

The Opening Pitch
The mail and phone calls are often used in many scams seeking donations for everything from helping disabled veterans, to aiding injured animals, to feeding orphans in Africa, to lobbying Congress about Social Security. A common ploy is to take a current news event such as a natural disaster and claim to be collecting for that cause.

The Presentation
The presentation is quite simple: the mailer or caller describes the charity or cause in vivid detail, making it seem worthy. The pitch may play on your feelings of guilt over the crisis or your desire to help others.

The Result
It is often difficult to determine after the fact if the donation you made was to a bonafide charity and if the money actually got to the cause that was presented. Some charitable fundraisers keep over 80 percent of the money they raise.

How to Avoid It
The best thing you can do before you give to any charity is to find out how much of the money you give goes to the charitable purpose and how much goes to the cost of fundraising. You can do this by asking the charity when they call or by contacting the Secretary of State’s office and asking for the registration number and financial reports for the charity in question.

Some charity minded people develop their own annual charity-giving plan. They select charities after investigating them thoroughly. As part of the plan, they decide how much and to whom they will give each year and then say no thank you when other charities call or write during the balance of the year. This strategy allows the givers to know where their money is going and to avoid being drawn in by a phony emotional appeal.

 FOREIGN LOTTERY SCAM

In this scam, you receive a call, email or letter — usually from a foreign country — telling you about a way to select winning lottery numbers, and you need to call a toll-free number to find out more. There is no need to call that number. All the con criminal has is a winning way to take your money.

Grabbing Your Attention
Congratulations! You may receive a certified check for up to $400,000 in cash! That’s right, lump sum and tax-free, it must be your lucky day! Hundreds of people win every week using our secret system! You can win too!

Their Muddied up Facts
There are multiple variations, but a typical presentation is that you respond to a letter in the mail by calling a toll-free number. The person on the other end of the line, whose voice is filled with excitement, says something like, “Today is your lucky day! The company has reserved numbers for you.” They imply that you will get the winning numbers that will allow you to collect $400,000 (the number varies). All you have to do to claim this winning number is wire transfer a “processing fee.”

The End Result
The result is you wire the money to Canada or Spain or the Virgin Islands and you never receive your check for $400,000 nor do you ever hear from them again.

How to Save Yourself
Ask yourself one simple question when you hear this pitch, if a company or anyone had the ability to select the winning lottery number, why would they give it to you for a fraction of the winnings? Even though it seems like no one would fall for this, thousands and thousands of people do fall for it each year throughout the U.S. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has these words of caution for consumers who are thinking about responding to a foreign lottery:

  • There are no secret systems for winning foreign lotteries. Your chances of winning more than the cost of your tickets are slim to none;
  • If you purchase one foreign lottery ticket, you can expect many more bogus offers for lottery or investment “opportunities.” Your name will be placed on “sucker lists” that fraudulent telemarketers buy and sell; and
  • Keep your credit card and bank account numbers to yourself. Con criminals often ask for them during an unsolicited sales pitch. Scammers will use this type of information to empty your bank accounts.

HOME IMPROVEMENT SCHEMES

Each year when the weather turns nice, itinerant crews of roofers, pavers and day laborers travel from city to city, driving through neighborhoods and mobile home parks looking for victims. Sometimes they “offer” to pave your driveway, repair your roof, or paint your house with supplies “left over” from another job.

This is just a scam. The repair work is completed very quickly, the quality is poor and the “repairs” usually cost more than the original estimate.

Warning Signs:

  • The repairperson drives an unmarked truck or van with an out-of-state license;
  • The worker has no business identification, local address or telephone number;
  • You are offered a “special price” if you sign today;
  • The worker wants upfront cost or fees, or accepts only cash;
  • No written estimates or contracts are provided;
  • The worker does not have any references;
  • The offer sounds “too good to be true.”

Generally, work that “adds to or subtracts from real estate” requires a registered contractor. Businesses that provide services such as gutter cleaning, pruning, lawn care or window washing do not need to be registered.

If you are planning to hire a contractor, make sure the contractor is registered and bonded. Check the contractor’s references. Solicit several written bids.

INTERNET SCAMS

According to research by AARP, senior citizens are the fastest growing segment of the Internet community. It is estimated that 27.3 million seniors are Internet users, up from 10.7 million in 1999.

Seniors say that keeping in touch with others remains the top reason for using the Internet. But seniors increasingly are turning to their computers to shop and conduct business.

And people 50 and older are an increasingly popular target for marketers. Unfortunately, some of those people are con criminals who use the Internet to scam millions from unsuspecting victims. Given the newness of the Internet, these scams continue to develop and grow.

INVESTMENT SCAMS

In this scam, the criminal contacts you with a great investment plan. While the specific details of the plan can vary depending on who is delivering the pitch, one thing is certain: it is a bad investment for everyone but the criminal.

Their Approach
There are many approaches to selling investments. One example is to offer a free analysis of your investment portfolio. Others have sent out mailers offering incredible returns on such investments as gold coins, promissory notes secured by deeds of trust and even something called “viaticals,” which literally is buying the payments on a life insurance policy for someone who is about to die.

The Sales Pitch
The presentations always talk about three things: your return or profit on the investment, how safe it is, and how easily can you get your principle back if you need it.

The pitches often tie into something going on in the news. So for instance, when there is a war or some kind of international unrest, the con criminal will exploit that to sell gold coins, saying something like, “Mr. Prospect, during periods of economic unrest, what kind of investment can you count on? You cannot count on the stock market or the financial markets. The one thing that will be there for you, no matter what, is precious metals and there is no more precious metal than good, old-fashioned gold.”

Therefore, the scammer sells you a gold coin for $3,000 that he bought for $300 and claims it will be worth $6,000 in five years.

Being Pro-active
Consider following the three C’s before you make a buying decision: compare, consider and consult:

  • Compare: Whenever an investment salesperson presents an opportunity to you, before you buy, compare that investment to other opportunities from other firms. So for instance, before you invest in a money market certificate at one bank, compare the rates at two other banks.
  • Consider: Never make a buying decision at the time of the sales pitch. Always give yourself time to consider whether it is a good deal.
  • Consult: While you are considering the investment, consult with someone whose opinion you trust and find out what they think of the investment.

THE LIVING TRUST SCAM

The living trust scam attempts to get you to purchase a trust. It plays on the fear that probate costs and estate taxes will erode the value of your estate. While living trusts can be a useful tool for some, many unscrupulous sales persons use it to simply get in the door and sell high-commission investments to consumers, whether or not it is the best thing for them.

The Marketing Ploy

“Do you want to leave a legacy for your grandchildren and not have the government take all the money you have spent a lifetime saving? Come to a free seminar to learn how.”

The Pitch
You respond to such a mailer, phone call or advertisement by attending a workshop. Or you might call to find out about it and someone will come out to your home to present information. They will sign you up for a living trust by having you fill out forms that disclose all of your financial assets. Once they have seen your finances, they begin to recommend different investments, usually insurance type products like annuities, in order to earn high commissions off the sale of those products.

The End Result
Sometimes the living trust document you buy is not filled out properly because lawyers are not doing it. If these documents are filled out improperly, you may end up going through probate anyway, the very thing you were told you could avoid. In addition, many older people end up buying investments that are not appropriate for them given their situation.

Being Safe
If you want to know if a living trust will truly help you, you should get the advice of an estate-planning attorney. You can find the name and phone number for such an attorney by calling your local bar association, lawyer referral service.

SWEEPSTAKES SCAM

In this scam, the con criminal makes you think you have won a great prize or sweepstakes. However, there is a catch: to claim your prize, you need to pay some fee or purchase some merchandise. There is no prize, and the criminal pockets the fee.

Trickery
Sweepstakes scams usually start with an over-sized envelope in the mail. It will have your name printed all over the material as being a potential (or an actual) winner. Such direct mail letters will often have the pictures of past winners describing how wonderful their lives are now that they are millionaires.

In another variation, a fraudulent telemarketer may call your home and tell you, in the most excited voice imaginable, that you have won a big prize. He or she may say something like this: “Congratulations, you are our big prize winner in our biggest prize giveaway ever.”

Misleading Facts
As you read further in these mailers, you realize they are selling merchandise of all kinds. The message is clear: the more merchandise you buy, the more likely your chances of winning. While the mailings do not directly say this, they definitely imply strongly that your chances of winning increase as you buy more merchandise.

In the telephone version, the criminal will tell you that in order to claim your prize, all you need to do is to send in a cashier’s check or your credit card number to cover a small fee associated with handling and delivery, postage, insurance, foreign taxes, or some other false reason.

The End Result
Many, many consumers and especially older consumers have been hooked on these scams, often spending thousands of dollars on merchandise they did not really need but thought would improve their chances of winning. What hooks many people into habitually being duped with these scams is the dream of winning. They think, “Maybe this time I really did win.”

Digging a Financial Hole
The key thing to remember about sweepstakes is the chances of you winning are about the same as being struck by a bolt of lightning. Buying merchandise from a company that uses sweepstakes as a promotion does not improve your chances of winning. Furthermore, it is illegal for any company to require you to make a purchase or spend money in order to play the sweepstakes they are running.

TRAVEL SWEEPSTAKES SCAM

“Congratulations! You are one of our lucky winners for a week-long luxury vacation to the beautiful and sunny beaches of Puerto Vallarta.”

If you receive a phone call, email or postcard like this, you may have just been targeted for a travel sweepstakes scam. Older adults are common targets since they have more disposable income and travel a lot– but anyone can be a victim.

So before you give up your credit card number, dial for reservations, or respond to an enticing email use extreme caution.

The Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission offer the following five clues you might be the victim of a travel sweepstakes scam:

  • You must make a purchase or send a “service fee” to receive the prize: Legitimate sweepstakes never require you to make a purchase or pay a fee to claim your prize. Never give your credit card or banking information over the phone. Never wire money or send checks or money orders to claim your prize.
  • It’s hard to tell who is giving you the prize:  Sponsors of legitimate contests or sweepstakes clearly identify themselves. They also provide a number or address you can use to request removal from their mailing list.
  • Terms of the promotion are nowhere to be found: Legitimate contests and promotions include lots of disclaimers, terms and conditions–including the rules and odds of winning.
  • It’s a bulk rate postcard: It’s a no-brainer, but if you truly won a big prize, you likely would not be notified by bulk rate mail.
  • The promoter uses a well-known brand-name to add legitimacy: It’s illegal for a promoter to misrepresent an affiliation with — or endorsement by — a government agency or other well-known organization or company.

If you receive a travel sweepstakes scam, report it to the Attorney General’s Office using our “File a Complaint” form or call our Consumer Resource Center at 1.800.551.4636 (Washington only).

STOREFRONT SCAMS

OLYMPIA — Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Secretary of State Kim Wyman are teaming up to warn consumers about a troubling practice by some individuals who solicit donations near retail stores on behalf of charities.

The Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) and the Office of Secretary of State’s (OSOS) Charities Program are aware of potentially illegal actions taken by these solicitors.

Increasingly, the solicitors are asking for charity donations outside of retail stores. The solicitors often set up a table at a store entrance or exit. They ask for small cash, check, debit or credit card donations. In most instances, the solicitors will offer small trinkets for a donation. They state that donations will go toward various charitable purposes, such as helping sick or disabled children, animals, battered women, or to support well-known charitable organizations.

The AGO Consumer Protection Division and the OSOS Charities Program have reason to believe the solicitors personally pocket most of the money instead of giving it to the intended charity.

“Unfortunately, not all solicitors are reputable,” said Ferguson. “Check before giving to a charity so you can confirm your money is going to help a good cause, not line someone’s wallet.”

“These solicitors are taking money away from legitimate charities, so we want citizens and retailers to be aware of this emerging problem and avoid being scammed,” Wyman said.

Many of these practices violate the Charitable Solicitations Act (RCW 19.09) and the state’s Consumer Protection Act (RCW 19.86). The Attorney General’s Office has civil enforcement authority of both laws.

Wyman says charities need to register with the Charities Program, with some exceptions. However, she cautions that a registration with the Charities Program is not an endorsement of the solicitor, or his or her charity, nor is it an assurance that the solicitor is complying with the law.

“People can’t assume that every charity registered with our program operates legally or in good faith. When we discover illegal activity, we quickly coordinate with the Attorney General’s Office so they can try to put a stop to it,” Wyman said.

“A key priority for the Attorney General’s Office is to prevent consumers from being scammed,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson and Wyman provided these tips to people who might encounter store-front solicitors:

  • Don’t give in to pressure. Tell the solicitor you want to take time to make your decision.
  • Ask for written material about the charity to take home and research to see if their donations help other charities as they claim.
  • Ask the solicitor if he or she is registered with the Office of Secretary of State.
  • Don’t be fooled by a name. Some use similar sounding names that closely resemble respected, well-established charities.

Since September 2011, the AGO has investigated and filed a lawsuit against one such solicitor for these types of violations. (Here is the link to the complaint filed earlier this year by the state against Joseph W. Searles and Rena R. Searles: http://1.usa.gov/13tu0XY . Here is the link to the consent decree for that case:http://1.usa.gov/13tu89V.)

However, its Consumer Protection Division continues to see new charities and no slowing in the amount of troubling solicitations.

Ferguson and Wyman recently sent a jointly signed letter to Washington retailers alerting them to the questionable solicitations and asking retailers to help by alerting the AGO’s Consumer Protection Division of any suspicious solicitation activity near their stores.

The Secretary of State’s Charities Program has a Give Wisely webpage that includes several tips, a video, a checklist for use with telephone solicitors and a brochure on giving wisely so donors have the knowledge to make informed decisions when giving money.

Visit the Consumer Protection Division website. The Charities Program website can be found.

For more information about questionable solicitors who request donations in front of retail stores, contact the Attorney General’s Office.

AG warns of Medicare scams

OLYMPIA— Attorney General Bob Ferguson has learned Washington residents are receiving calls from scammers posing as Medicare officials seeking personal information, claiming to need the information to issue new Medicare cards. 

“The Office of the Attorney General is dedicated to protecting seniors— and all consumers in Washington— from scammers in the marketplace,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson.  “Seniors need to know that Medicare will never call them offering to replace their cards, they’ll never call seeking personal information and they’ll never charge you to replace your cards.”

These types of scams— also known as “phishing” scams— take a variety of forms. Some scammers will claim to be from your bank or credit card company. Others will tell you they are from Medicare or social security.  The scammers may use phone calls, text messages or e-mail to contact you—even Facebook.  They all have the same goal: obtaining your personal information so they can commit identity theft or access your bank account.

People can protect themselves from “phishing” scams by recognizing the signs:
•    Legitimate companies or government organizations know to never call individuals and ask for their personal information— like social security numbers or bank accounts— over the phone.
•    If you question whether the call is legitimate, ask the caller to provide your personal information for you to confirm.
•    Callers may also contact the organization the scammer claims to be representing to double check.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson is dedicated to running the state’s largest public law firm as an independent, non-partisan office. His priorities are protecting consumers and seniors against fraud, keeping communities safe, enforcing environmental protections and providing assistance to our veterans.

For those who wish to give to legitimate non-profits tax deductible and respectful organizations, here is a compiled list of our favorites:  (this is for the current typhoon disaster in the Phillipines).

American Red Cross – http://www.redcross.org/charitable-donations

Care – http://www.care.org/emergencies/typhoon-haiyan

The Phillipine Red Cross – http://www.redcross.org.ph/

UNICEF – https://secure.unicefusa.org/site/Donation2?df_id=16500&16500.donation=form1

Save the Children – https://secure.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI4E/b.8855857/k.E53D/Donate_to_the_Typhoon_Haiyan_Childrens_Relief_Fund/apps/ka/sd/donor.asp

Habitat for Humanity – http://www.give2habitat.org/philippines/ReBuildPhilippines

(c) 2013 The NW Fire Blog