The annoyances presented by telemarketers are so common they’ve become go-to topics in sitcoms and standup comedy acts. Everyone laughs about how annoying telemarketer calls are because we all know and share the frustration of having our meal times interrupted or our family conversations disturbed by a ringing telephone. More than a running joke, though, these annoyances can pose a real threat to your financial security.
There’s no good way to avoid getting a call from these companies, either. The FCC’s Do Not Call list complaints are increasing, but only about 600 companies have faced penalties or fines from the FCC. Even worse, if you make a transaction with a company, they can cold call you for up to three months if you’ve made an inquiry and up to 18 months if you’ve made a purchase.
These irritating calls seem to be a fact of modern life. The best thing you can do is be polite in saying “no” and ask them not to call again. When they turn from sales to scam, though, extra attention may be required. Let’s take a look at three common scams, how to detect them and what you can do to fight back.
The Fake Charity
How it works: You get a call asking for your help dealing with a recent catastrophe. It will be ripped from the headlines and pull at your heartstrings.
The scammer has set up the charity and hired his own organization to run advertising and promotion. He will use that organization to collect somewhere between 90% and 95% of the funds raised. The tiny fraction left over will be donated to a legitimate charity and written off as a charitable contribution by the scammer.
The worst part about this scam is it’s completely legal. The people who set up these fake organizations know the tax code and exactly how far they can push the scam. By the time anyone investigates the “charity,” it’s already shut its doors. The scammer moves on to the next crisis.
In the best case, these scammers will merely take your money. In worse cases, they may sell your contact information to other scammers. They may even use your payment information to steal your identity.
How you can find it: Savvy scammers will set up a legitimate-looking website for their fake charity, so a simple search won’t help. However, searching websites like Guidestar can help you sort out legitimate charities from scam organizations. Legitimate charities report information to the website, including what percentage of the funds they raise goes to overhead costs. Honest charities will never mind if you do your research.
How you can avoid it: Be proactive in your charitable contributions. Don’t wait for a telemarketer to make a pitch about suffering in the world. If you want to give money to a cause, do some research and find an organization that aligns with your values. That way, you can tell anyone who calls, legitimate or not, that you already gave.
Yard Sale Help
How it works: You’re trying to sell some stuff you don’t need, like an old car or an antique desk, on a community website like Craigslist. You put your phone number on the ad so buyers can get in touch with you for answers to any questions. It’s been up a few days, and you’re starting to get discouraged.
Then, a company calls and offers to put you in touch with a buyer. They want a percentage of the sale price as a commission. They want it upfront, but if the deal falls through (they say) they’ll refund your money.
However, the truth is that there is no buyer, and there is no refund. You’re out the money you’ve spent on this bogus service and you’re no closer to selling your stuff.
How you can find it: Watch out for vagueness in the message – if you’re selling a truck, be careful of people who want to help you sell your “vehicle.” Frequently, vague messages are used to avoid changing the telemarketing script. Similarly, don’t do business with services like this outside your community.
What you can do about it: Selling things yourself can be very stressful. Be sure to give yourself as much time as possible to complete the transaction and always get an offer in writing before committing to sell. If time is really short, consider selling vehicles or other large products to scrap yards or through consignment shops. Legitimate organizations will pay you to sell your things at a markup. No one in this business asks for money upfront.
Senior Alert Scam
How it works: One of the demographic groups who still has landline phone service in large numbers is senior citizens, and telemarketing scammers know this. Earlier this year, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning about telemarketers advertising a personal alarm system for seniors. The pitch began by describing a dangerous situation like a break-in or a medical emergency. This was done to create a sense of urgency and easily relatable panic.
The scam offers a free personal alarm system, ordinarily worth thousands of dollars. The senior is only responsible for a small monthly fee, usually around $30. To reassure you, the scammer will cite endorsements from familiar-sounding organizations, like the Retired People’s Association (not AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, with which most are familiar).
No alarm ever comes, and mysterious credit card charges start showing up. In truth, there was no alarm. The call was just trying to get credit card numbers for identity theft. The company doesn’t really exist. It’s just a front for a scam.
How to identify it: Watch out for any sales tactic based on creating fear. Scammers know that people value their safety more than anything else and will frequently make bad decisions just to regain that sense of security. Also be careful of any organization that won’t send information for you to consider or is withholding business details. Pay close attention to the names of organizations the telemarketer is citing.
What you can do about it: Do not give your credit card information to anyone offering a free service. If it’s free, they don’t need it. If it’s not, they’re only telling you it’s free to fool you. Instead, try to get as much information about the organization as possible: a name, an address, a primary telephone number or a website. Then, take that information to the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Communication Commission.
While we may never be rid of the scourge of telemarketing, we can take steps to make sure we lose as little as possible to scammers who use it.
No matter what’s being peddled, your refrain should always be the same. No thank you, stop calling, and hang up. Document the times and dates you receive these calls and don’t be afraid to contact the FCC, the BBB and your state’s Attorney General.