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Consumer alert: sorting through the mail.

Beware: your mailbox could be a magnet for fraud

Mary Ann Campbell is still scratching her head, wondering how her name and address got circulated among con artists. Campbell is one of thousands of consumers who get caught up in solicitations sent by snail-mail or e-mail each year.

"I don't know if I put my name on something or entered a contest," says Campbell, 54, president of Money Magic, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based company that provides financial education services. "But all of a sudden I began getting a barrage of hand-addressed chain letters, asking for everything from recipes to money."

Campbell's letter instructed her to add her name to the top of a list and send $1 to each of the names below hers. She was told to purchase 200 envelopes and stamps to create additional lists, and to rent a post office box to handle the mail.

The sender claimed that Campbell would receive cash in the mail in 15-60 days. Recognizing a scam, Campbell immediately turned the letter over to her local assistant attorney general, Jordan Abbott.

While the letter Campbell received was an obvious attempt at fraud, "it's often very difficult to tell the difference between fraudulent and legitimate solicitations," says Abbott.

Consumers should keep in mind the following expert advice to help them weed out legitimate mail from rip-off schemes:

* Inspect the envelope thoroughly. The return address can be your first clue. "If it's handwritten or a suite or department has been used, that's often a mail drop or an apartment," says Abbott.

Another clue: the face of the envelope includes warnings of severe penalties, such as fines or imprisonment, for unlawful tampering with the mail. "Only the questionable companies use that," says Abbott. "In our view it's an attempt to add an aura of legitimacy."

* Be cautious of suggested government connections. "Any sort of name that implies governmental affiliation is an attempt to confuse you," says Abbott. Legitimate government correspondence will be on letterhead that includes the agency's official seal. Also beware of cons who try to charge fees for services the government provides for free. These include getting a Social Security number for a newborn, statements of personal earnings or name changes for newlyweds.

* Along those lines, keep an eye out for offers to help you recover unclaimed income-tax refunds. The notice will say that the IRS may be holding a check in your name for a specific amount of money. The fine print, however, says that the sender will check to see if the agency has a refund for you--for a fee. "This is an out and out scam," says Paul Griffo, a media relations representative at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Washington, D.C.

* Carefully review invoices bearing the familiar "walking fingers" logo, especially if you're a business owner. Fraudulent promoters will use it to trick businesses into buying advertising in nonexistent directories or ones with very limited distribution. According to Griffo, genuine Yellow Pages directories will often put the advertising fee on their customers' phone bills. Make sure the company you use is the One actually sending the bill. This advice should also be followed if you are advertising in local newspapers.

* Carefully look for shipments of office supplies that you didn't order. Packages will include everything you need to run an office, along with an exorbitant invoice. When questioned, the company may say it's a late shipment in response to your order and offer a discount to make amends. Don't be fooled, cautions Griffo. "This is just a ruse to make a sale," he says. If it's an honest mistake, the company will ask you to return the merchandise. Otherwise, it's probably a scam and you should keep the evidence and report the crime to the Postal Inspection Service.

* Protect your mail on the Internet. Scam artists pretending to work for Internet service providers (ISPs) send e-mail to members. The message will say that they need to update the member database or they've lost data, and ask members to supply account information. "The fear of losing accounts causes people to respond," says Tatiana Gau, vice president of integrity assurance at America Online, based in Dulles, Virginia. AOL and other ISPs never ask for password or billing information online. "It's like your ATM PIN," says Gau. "If you don't know the person sending the message, don't download any files attached to it," she warns. (AOL has set up an online Neighborhood Watch that provides members with tips about scams circulating on the Internet, as well as downloadable software to protect them from Trojan horses.)

* Beware of unscrupulous new magazines that want to boost their subscription numbers. Some will send invoices for unordered publications. "Many people will pay, thinking the mistake was theirs," says Griffo. That's exactly what the publishers are banking on.


When reporting mail fraud, send copies of the evidence, including letters and invoices, with a brief letter to your local Postal Inspection Service. Keep all receipts, envelopes or packaging with postmarks and addresses.

"Many times we know who the perpetrators are, but we need to build the case with a paper trail," says Griffo. You probably won't get your money back if you've been a victim, but the U.S. Postal Inspection Service can impose a temporary restraining order so that a swindler can no longer receive mail. Any checks en route will be returned to the people who sent them.

The Federal Trade Commission has published a number of fliers and publications that deal with consumer fraud. For a complete list, write: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580;
COPYRIGHT 1998 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Verve; personal mailbox may attract fraud
Author:Jones, Joyce
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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