Tele-Scam Contests Bilk Unwary Seniors

Older citizens, often too trusting, pay to enter phony sweepstakes, and end up losing billions a year

AN alert to older Americans: Don't fall victim to fraudulent contests and sweepstakes.

Increasingly, scam artists are targeting senior citizens, say federal law enforcement officials and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). This trend, which is costing older Americans billions of dollars a year, is reflected in the growing number of complaints made by the elderly or their families to consumer groups and government agencies.

The elderly tend to be more trusting, have more free time, and spend more time at home than younger Americans, making them more vulnerable to dishonest telemarketers and mailings, says Joan King, chairwoman of AARP's consumer committee.

In a new ``consumer alert'' issued on Wednesday, AARP spells out the scams and what to do if you feel you've been victimized.

Some contests invite people to enter by paying a fee and then answering a question. To advance, contestants are asked to keep answering questions and paying more fees, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars.

In others, consumers are offered products for sale - usually at inflated prices - to enter a sweepstakes. Sometimes they never receive the products; sometimes they do, but find them inferior. Prizes don't materialize. A legitimate sweepstakes does not require any purchase or entry fee, says the Direct Marketing Association.

Once people respond to scam artists, they're added to ``sucker lists'' and get increasing amounts of phone and mail solicitations.

Mike Varnum, chief of the FBI's economic crime unit, offers simple advice: ``You don't want to give your money away too readily.'' If someone calls with an offer, he says, ask them to send something in the mail; sometimes this is enough to scare away a scammer.

AARP points to laws designed to protect consumers, such as the Unfair and Deceptive and Practices Law, which outlaws contests or sweepstakes that are misleading. Five states have enhanced versions to protect the elderly.

THE Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 requires people making telemarketing calls to state their name, for whom they are calling, and a phone number or address where they may be contacted.

The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers who pay for something by credit card to withhold payment to the credit-card company if a product is not delivered or is unsatisfactory.

``Scams have been around for a long time,'' says Mr. Varnum of the FBI. But in recent years, he adds, his agency has made it a higher priority to go after them. In a probe of telemarketing fraud launched in 1990, the FBI found that the elderly were specifically targeted more than any other group, or 34 percent of the time, by illegal telemarketers.

``Everybody's ashamed if they're ripped off, but older people are more reluctant to come forward,'' says Deborah Zuckerman, a consumer affairs lawyer at AARP.

A 1993 study on senior citizens' consumer behavior found that people over age 65 consistently were more trusting of businesses - from car repair shops to door-to-door salesmen - than were people age 18 to 64. Also, the elderly were less willing to take action if they were unhappy with a business than were younger people, according to Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the study.

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