Caution, Y2K scams ahead

Those out to profit from the fear of big breakdowns are already at work

That much-hyped tick of the temporal odometer - from 1999 to 2000 - looms pretty large these days. And it carries with it a lot of uncertainty.

Much of the concern revolves around whether computers around the world will malfunction on Jan. 1 because they aren't programmed to properly read year 2000.

Y2K worriers cite the possibility of citywide blackouts, planes disappearing off radar screens, or banks losing track of customers' savings.

But the biggest concern among government officials and consumer groups is how scam artists might play on - and profit from - such fears.

Some scams have already surfaced. Among them: phone calls by phony bank representatives attempting to "confirm" credit-card or bank-account numbers; offers to hold your savings in a "safe place" until after Jan. 1; the sale of bogus magnetic strips to make credit cards "immune" from computer problems.

At least one scam targets the elderly. A professed "government employee" convinces senior citizens that they will no longer get Social Security checks and that paper money will be useless.

He then persuades retirees to send in their cash so it can be converted to gold and mailed back to them.

Other unlikely sounding Y2K scandals have debuted abroad. In Hong Kong recently, a woman forked over $15,440 to buy pills from con men who told her they could "cure" the "millennium bug."

Over the past three months, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed complaints against three companies involved in alleged Y2K scams.

Each of the companies had offered fraudulent credit-card protection and told consumers that they could be held fully liable for all unauthorized charges unless they purchased the company's services.

So far one of the companies, Canada-based NCCP Ltd., has agreed to pay $100,000 to settle the FTC charges.

"These con artists were making money selling imaginary fixes to imaginary problems," Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated recently. "Smart consumers know that their liability for lost credit cards is limited to $50 per card."

Several groups and government agencies have issued warnings about Y2K fraud and have put out publications to educate consumers and businesses. (See list).

Here's what some experts recommend you do to avoid being taken in by Y2K con games:

*Never give out personal information over the telephone or on the Internet unless you're familiar with the business or initiated the contact.

*Remember that no financial institution will call you to ask for personal information. (They already have it.)

*Contact your financial institution immediately to report any suspicious request for confidential account information.

*Be alert for any unauthorized charges to your credit card as well as unauthorized debits to your checking or savings account.

*Review all account statements on a timely basis.

Apparently, many consumers are heeding such advice and staying one step ahead of the Y2K swindlers.

"Most of our Y2K-scam calls are from people reporting to us about someone attempting to scam them, not because they've already been duped," says David Barr, spokesman for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

WHY NOT TO WORRY TOO MUCH Sure, there are procrastinators. But key institutions have been targeting Y2K for a while.

Financial institutions claim to be nearly ready. With just 75 days left before the new year, 99 percent of the nation's federally insured banks, thrifts, and credit unions have completed their Y2K preparations, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also estimates that 99 percent of the brokerage firms and securities transfer agents are Y2K compliant.

The same percentage of the nation's power companies is ready, according to US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

The Federal Aviation Administration says all its systems are Y2K ready. In fact, in a show of confidence, an FAA administrator will fly American Airlines from Washington to Dallas/Ft.Worth, on New Year's Eve, and then on to San Francisco.

Wall Street is prepared too: Trading on the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ will end at 1 p.m. Eastern time on New Year's Eve as a precaution against computer malfunctions and widespread selloffs.

WHERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT AVERTING RIPOFFS Want to read more about Y2K preparedness? Among the many publications and services available:

*"Year 2000 and You," which is available through the Better Business Bureau Web site (www.bbb.org/library/y2k.html) or by writing them at 4200 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22203.

*The FDIC's consumer advisory is available by calling 1-800-934-3342 or visiting the Web site (www.fdic.gov/about/y2k).

*The Federal Trade Commission's Y2K fraud advisory, "Y2K? Y 2 Care: Protecting Your Finances from Year 2000 Scam Artists," is available on the FTC Web site (www.ftc.gov) or by calling them at 1-888-USA-4-Y2K.

*The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council's "A Y2K Checklist for Customers," is available on their Web site (www.ffiec.gov).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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