Imagine receiving a phone call from an overly friendly stranger claiming you've won a $2 million prize which you may claim after sending a hefty processing fee.
The fee seems worth the grand prize, so you acquiesce, only to receive more calls requesting last-minute payments for taxes, lawyer's fees and even shipping. The caller always is enthusiastic, using your first name and asking about your family.
Before you know it, you've sent thousands of dollars while promises of big prize money, complete with a party presentation and television cameras, never materialize.
Sour from the start, these too-good-to-be-true scams are among the most prevalent types of telemarketing fraud disproportionately targeting older adults.
People 60 and older made up nearly one-third of victims of telemarketing fraud reported to the National Consumer League's National Fraud Information Center in 2006. The average amount lost was about $2,000 -- no small amount for individuals living on fixed incomes.
Various factors may make older adults more vulnerable to crooked telemarketers, such as the fact they are home more often to take calls. However, AARP research has found, overall, older victims are not lonely, isolated or incompetent but often well-educated people who have above-average incomes and are active in their communities.
Although there is no general profile of older victims, a contributing factor in most cases is older adults are simply less skeptical of the voice making the pitch, said Susan Grant, director of the National Fraud Information Center.
"Older people tend to be more trusting and have a hard time imagining the friendly person on the other line could be a hardened criminal bent on obtaining their life savings," she said.
Scam artists use many of the same tactics as legitimate telemarketers -- they are persuasive and pushy, creating a sense of urgency while getting people excited. They also have plausible answers to suspecting questions, Grant said.
Nearly half of all crooks involved in telemarketing scams reported to the NFIC were located in Canada or other countries, making it difficult to track and prosecute them. They also tend to insist victims wire money or have a courier pick up payment, making it difficult to trace the transaction and giving the victim less time to change their mind.
Fraudulent callers often claim a person has won a prize, sweepstake, lottery, scholarship or even a government grant "for being a good taxpayer" -- but first must pay a fee to collect the gift.
Legitimate sweepstakes and contests do exist, but federal law mandates they cannot request a person to make a purchase or send money to claim a prize. Legitimate sweepstakes also notify winners via certified mail or prize patrol, not by regular mail or phone, Grant said.
Another emerging scam targeting seniors involves a letter sent to the potential victim announcing they have won sweepstakes or lottery money. A phony check is enclosed with a phone number for the person to call for instructions on how to pay customs fees or taxes.
Victims deposit the checks and withdraw money to wire to the crooks. By the time the bank realizes it's a fake check, which can take weeks, the victim already has sent the money and now owes the bank that amount.
Victims usually lose between $3,000 and $4,000 on this and other fake check scams, Grant said.
"The key message here is if somebody wants to give you money but is asking you to send money in return, it's a scam, no ifs, ands or buts," she said.
It may be tempting to believe such an offer, but people need to stop and think about what is happening and not allow themselves to be pressured before acting.
"They really need to ask themselves, 'Is this the way it should work? Why would I be winning something if I don't remember entering anything,'" Grant said.
Lottery scams, for example, often claim a person has won money in a different country, but you can't win a lottery unless you have entered in that country -- and it's the winner's responsibility to come forward.
Also, taxes due on prizes or winnings are paid directly to the federal government, not through a sweepstakes or lottery organization.
People also need to watch out for "phishing" scams from callers pretending to be from a legitimate organization wanting to confirm bank account and credit card numbers or other personal information.
Don't be a victim
Both legitimate and crooked telemarketers are able to target certain people with customized marketing lists compiled by companies using public records and other sources such as warranty cards filled out by individuals in other transactions, Grant said.
Contest boxes placed in malls and other places are another common ploy crooks use to obtain information about people who may be likely victims.
Once people participate in a telemarketing offer, they are placed on additional phone and mailing lists.
People can avoid calls from legitimate telemarketers (except nonprofit groups, charities, political organizations, surveys and companies you do business with) by adding their phone numbers to the National Do Not Call Registry and the Colorado No Call lists.
Crooks likely don't heed these lists, so any telemarketing call should be a red flag of a potential scam.
Older adults suspicious of a sales pitch may seek advice and also verify the authenticity of organizations seeking donations by contacting the NFIC or AARP ElderWatch program. Give.org is another resource for individuals wanting more information about charities.
One of the best ways to avoid becoming a victim of unscrupulous telemarketers is to preplan how to handle their calls -- use an answering machine or caller I.D. to screen calls, decide to hang up on pushy telemarketers or request they give you more time to seek information -- but have a plan, Grant said.
It's also important to keep in mind telemarketing fraud is a multi-billion-dollar business punishable with steep fines and prison sentences. Chances are even the nicest voice on the other end of the phone is up to no good.
For more info
For advice on telemarketing offers or to report suspected fraud, contact the National Fraud Information Center at 800-876-7060 or visit www.fraud.org.
The AARP ElderWatch program works to prevent financial exploitation of older adults in Colorado. To report potential fraud or for information or consumer alerts, call 800-222-4444 or visit www.aarpelderwatch.org.
Do Not Call Registries:
National: 888-382-1222 or www.donotcall.gov
Colorado: 800-309-7041 or www.coloradonocall.com
Tamera Manzanares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.