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Slam that telephone scam

A federal crackdown should help limit the reach of con artists dialing for your dollars. You can also take steps to protect yourself.

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Preventative approach

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At the AARP, the old line of defense was to tell members to "just hang up" on telemarketers. But senior program coordinator Les Norrgard said many older people are too polite to slam down the phone on someone. So the taping volunteer work is now supplemented with programs that focus on an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.

Telemarketers can be smooth talkers, so AARP has tried to change that image. "They might not be just some nice guy. They're criminals," says Mr. Norrgard.

The yen trader from Georgia, for instance, has four prior felony convictions for everything from grand theft to possession of burglary tools.

AARP also is using the telemarketers' own data to help stamp out the crime. After a person falls for a scam several times, they win the dubious honor of being placed on a list that telemarketers pass around from firm to firm. These "mooch lists," as they're called, indicate that anyone on them is susceptible to more fraud.

When they get hold of a mooch list, Norrgard says officials from AARP often will call people on the roster and tell them they've been tagged as suckers. That can be a sobering moment.

The chase goes on

The FBI's Havertz says he feels like he's made a dent in telemarketing fraud. Still, the wealth that entrepreneurs and the stock market have created over the past decade has kept the bad guys on alert to every new moneymaking possibility. And so the chase goes on.

"I've been doing this since 1993," said assistant US Attorney Peak, "and I haven't had a slow day since."

Put tempting deals on hold

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That adage holds as true today as ever. When a telemarketer promises to turn your $5,000 into $50,000 in a matter of weeks, it just isn't so. From the government and consumer advocates, here are some tips on spotting telemarketing fraud - and putting an end to it.

Be wary of:

Callers who say you "must act now" or forfeit your prize.

Free gifts that first require that you to send money or pay for taxes or shipping.

Advice that you can't afford to miss a "no-risk" opportunity.

To shield yourself from telemarketing fraud:

Wait and think over any offer. It's not rude, and legitimate businesses will understand.

Check a company's track record with the Better Business Bureau, state attorney general's consumer office, or the National Fraud Information Center (800-876-7060).

Don't respond if you don't fully understand the terms of what's being offered.

What to watch for, and where to turn

The following were the 10 most common telemarketing scams of 2000, according to the National Consumers League.

1. Sweepstakes prizes

2. Magazine renewals

3. Credit-card issuances (involving up-front fees)

4. Work-at-home plans

5. Advance-fee loans

6. Telephone slamming (switching carriers without permission)

7. Credit-card loss-protection plans

8. Buying clubs

9. Telephone cramming (charging for phone options without consent)

10. Travel vacations

For more information on detecting telemarketing fraud, or to lodge a complaint, here are some organizations worth contacting:

National Fraud Information Center. 800-876-7060. www.fraud.org

Federal Trade Commission. 877-382-4357. www.ftc.gov/bcp

Direct Marketing Association. www.the-dma.org/consumers/direct

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society