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Seniors warned against 'psychological mugging'

July 23, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Peggy Morris was immediately suspicious when a man called her a couple of weeks ago claiming to be from her credit card company and asking for her credit card's expiration date.

The Martinsburg resident said the man told her they had made a mistake and failed to enter her card's expiration date into their records.

She told the man her son had her card and to call back the next day.

When he did, Morris, 68, asked him for the name of the company, where he was calling from and his name. By the third question, he'd hung up.

Morris handled the call well, according to speakers at a seminar on consumer fraud Wednesday at the Martinsburg Holiday Inn.

The only thing she didn't do that she should have done is call the police, according to the speakers.

"I didn't know to call," said Morris, who said she didn't realize until attending the seminar that anything could be done with the little information she was able to gather.

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While you should try to get as much information as possible from a shady telemarketer, simply having the name of the company can help authorities track down and prosecute illegal operations, said Jill Miles, deputy attorney general with West Virginia's consumer protection division.

The state has actively gone after telemarketing fraud, using sting operations to catch illicit out-of-state companies in the act and get more than $250,000 in refunds for West Virginia victims, Miles said.

Miles was one of six speakers at the free seminar, sponsored by West Virginia American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and attended by more than 100 people.

She was joined by Berkeley County Sheriff Ron Jones, Martinsburg Police Chief Ted Anderson, Assistant Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Brenda Waugh and national AARP fraud prevention expert Steve Mehlman.

Senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to fraud, but it's not because they're stupid, gullible or senile, Mehlman said.

Part of the reason is accessibility. They are home more than most younger people, he said.

They also tend to be more trusting because of the times they were raised in, when doors were left unlocked and a handshake sealed a deal, Mehlman said.

A recent study showed that the stereotype of a typical victim as living alone, isolated, undereducated and feeble is untrue, he said.

The majority of victims are in good health, have above average intelligence, live with or near family and friends and are active in their churches and the community, Mehlman said.

Telemarketers are masters of psychology, able to win over even the skeptics if they stay on the phone long enough, he said.

One of the problems in stopping bad telemarketers is that many people don't realize telemarketing fraud is a criminal offense, or it's dismissed as not as serious as violent crime, Mehlman said.

"Fraud is a psychological mugging. It robs people of their dignity, self-respect, even their physical and mental health," he said.

Many scams revolve around supposed contests offering large prizes, Miles said.

But there's always some catch to get the prize, some fee or requirement to buy overpriced junk you don't need, she said.

If it was a legitimate prize, you wouldn't have to pay anything to get it, Miles said.

Another type of scam involves solicitation supposedly for charity, she said.

Then there's the scam for the scammed, where someone calls claiming to be an official who can recover money, Miles said. Of course, you have to send something first.

Pressure to decide right away and send money or give bank and credit card account information should be red flags, she said.

Home improvement scams are a big problem locally, said Brenda Waugh, who warned people of doing business with pavers, roofers and other contractors who show up at their door without being called.

Legitimate contractors have a West Virginia license that they're required to include in their advertising and on their billing and estimate forms, Waugh said.

Consumers should ask for references, get a written estimate from the contractor and several others and sign a contract specifying the type of work and price before any work starts, she said.

If you are taken, you shouldn't be embarrassed to call police and report the incident, Waugh said.

You might even be able to recover your money by filing a case in Magistrate Court, which is relatively simple and inexpensive, she said.

One person at the seminar, John Clark Jr., 65, of Martinsburg, said he's asked West Virginia State Police to investigate a local contractor, who he claims took $1,500 to build an outbuilding for him and gave him only a load of gravel.

He said he hasn't heard anything from police yet and hasn't been able to get an address for the contractor, who is still running an ad in a local shopper, from state licensing officials.

Martinsburg resident Meta Foster, 67, said she feels lucky that she and her husband, Robert Foster, 67, haven't been victimized.

They came to the seminar to learn how to keep it that way, she said.

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