Experts offer tips on avoiding scams
Barely a week goes by without one or more Marion County residents being targeted by a scam.
Many scams are not reported to police. In recent weeks, however, Hillsboro police have investigated a scam in which a caller fraudulently claimed to be from the Internal Revenue Service, and Marion police have investigated a scam in which an itinerate worker expected an excessively large cash payment for a modest amount of handyman work.
Scammers often prey on older residents and their sense of trustingly wanting to do the right thing while not wanting to seem burdensome by asking a lot of questions.
Government experts offer these tips on how to identify potential scams:
- Be skeptical of all unsolicited offers and notifications.
Never agree to make any sort of payment, provide any sort of identifying information, or accept any sort of offer without first seeing all details spelled out in writing.
The first sign that someone claiming to represent a contest, a charity, or a governmental agency or that someone who is offering goods or services is not legitimate is if that person contacts you without warning and claims not to have time to send you something via regular postal mail.
Federal anti-scam experts recommend memorizing this line and using it whenever you receive any sort of unsolicited offer:
“I never buy from or give to anyone who calls or visits me unannounced. Send me something in writing.”
Wait until you receive the written material and review it carefully, with a trusted friend, before taking any sort of action.
This applies equally to people offering to do handyman work or odd jobs. Get the person to write down a list of the work to be done and the price for doing it before you agree to anything.
Well-known neighborhood children selling Girl Scout cookies or school fundraising items might be an exception, but a good rule of thumb is to never agree to anything or to provide any sort of information until after you receive material in writing and review it with a friend.
- Get information before giving information.
A legitimate caller will understand and be more than willing to provide you his or her full name, the full name of the group he or she represents, and a listed phone number and street address for that group before asking you for anything.
Making a point of asking for such information and of writing it down while the caller waits not only gives you recourse in case the offer turns out to be invalid. It also scares away most would-be scam artists while convincing legitimate callers that you are less likely to be taken advantage of.
Be aware that all information — even things that only identify you, such as your Social Security, Medicare, insurance, driver’s license, or bank account numbers and even your email address, birthday, or cell phone number — can be used by scam artists to rip you off.
Just because you don’t provide a payment doesn’t mean you’re safe. Protect your information as carefully as you protect your money.
- Don’t provide payment or any identifying information unless you initiate the call.
Legitimate callers will never require that you pay or provide identifying information on the first call.
Even something as simple as pretending to be busy and offering to call back later can protect you. Most scam artists will want you to agree on the spot and won’t give you a chance to think and contact them later.
If the matter is urgent — which scam artists try to make everything seem to be — there’s always enough time to allow you to call them back at a number you can verify through telephone listings, printed material, or a Web search.
If the caller doesn’t have a publicly listed phone number and address that you can use to return his or her call, chances are the offer was not legitimate in the first place.
Someone claiming to be a down-and-out transient, looking for work without having a permanent address or phone, may tug at your heartstrings. But before offering to hire him or her, refer the person to local social service agencies and make sure the person has followed up before offering any additional help.
- Never pay with cash or other untraceable means like “gift” credit cards.
Paying by check gives you an added level of protection. If someone wanting payment from you is not sufficiently established to be able to accept a personal check, he or she probably is not reliable enough to do business with.
If you pay by credit card, never simply give someone your number. Always call back and make sure you have reached an actual office before providing your number.
Use a credit card instead of a debit card, which legally offers less protection in case of fraud, and always insist on receiving and recording a confirmation number for the transaction.
Before paying anyone, always ask for that person’s Social Security number or Federal Employer Identification Number.
You can justify this by explaining that legally you may be required to report to the Internal Revenue Service any goods or services you purchase that total $600 or more in a calendar year.
If you want to sound really professional and technical about things, ask the person requesting payment to provide you a federal I-9 form, which includes the contractor’s SSN or FEIN. Legitimate operations will understand and accept the request, which is routine.
Scam artists and people attempting to defraud the government by under-reporting income on tax returns will object. If someone refuses to complete an I-9 form, available online and from most libraries, avoid doing business with him or her.
- Never be afraid to ask for advice.
Many fraud victims end up being victims because they were mistakenly too proud to ask questions or don’t want to be seen as someone who asks burdensome questions.
After someone’s initial contact but before you return the call, seek out advice from your bank or a trusted friend, telephone the Better Business Bureau, contact the county Department on Aging, or ask local law enforcement officers.
A quick call to a friend or agency won’t make you seem paranoid and suspicious. Rather, you’ll seem prudent and careful — and may actually initiate an investigation that protects others as well as you.