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Financial frenzy feeds fraud; don’t become a victim

Denver Business JournalOn the Money
From the June 6, 2008 print edition

Economic conditions remain challenging. Fuel prices are climbing to unprecedented heights, the number of home foreclosures is setting records, and the financial markets have more volatility than ever.

As consumers and business owners work to survive the assault on predictability, it’s appealing to take on additional debt, with the idea that current conditions are temporary. Unfortunately, purveyors of illegal money schemes know this as well.

A colloquial phrase says, “I’ll whip them into a frenzy.” Obviously, in a frenzy, people are less likely to make considered decisions. That opens the door to fraud schemes, especially those that involve “borrowing” money on a promise of relief or gain. It’s not long before the victims have more debt than they can handle. Therein is the vulnerability.

According to the bureaus of economics and consumer protection of the Federal Trade Commission, an estimated 13.5 percent of U.S. adults — 30.2 million consumers — were victims of one or more frauds in 2005, and there were an estimated 48.7 million attempts of frauds during the year.

While the report covered 14 types of fraud, the top four were: weight-loss products, foreign lotteries and buyers’ club memberships, prize promotions and work-at-home programs. It’s important to note that prize promotions include those that require attendance at a sales presentation to obtain the promised prize.

Knowing what to watch for is one thing. However, knowing what makes a person more susceptible is far more beneficial. It’s easier to avoid a disease if the person knows they have a predisposition to it.

Therefore, here’s the knowledge that can guard you against fraud in times of frenzy. According to the FTC report, “Those with too much debt experience more fraud.”

Those who have more debt than they can handle are more likely to be victims of all sorts of frauds, whether or not they’re related to debt, such as advance fee loans, credit repair and debt consolidation.

For example, people with more debt than they could handle were more than three times as likely — 6.6 percent — to purchase a fraudulent weight-loss product than those who didn’t have an uncomfortable level of debt, 1.8 percent, according to the report. Those who had too much debt also were more likely to become victims of fraudulent prize promotions and foreign lottery swindles.

Recognizing that an uncomfortable level of debt may predispose a person to a swindle is but the first step toward protection from fraud. The second is to be aware of the pitch methods used by con artists.

The Internet gets lots of attention because of much nefarious behavior. But unscrupulous promoters use the printed page as their No. 1 method in schemes. Apparently, if it’s published on paper and we hold it in our hand, credibility is automatic.

However, the Federal Trade Commission reports that 27 percent of the time, fraud victims learned about offers through print advertising — direct-mail advertising (including catalogs), newspaper and magazine advertising, and posters and fliers.

Direct mail was the most common form of print advertising cited, and was the vehicle used in 16 percent of all fraudulent offers. Newspaper and magazine advertising accounted for 10 percent. The Internet was in second place, 22 percent, via general websites, auction sites and email. General websites were 10 percent of that figure; Internet auction sites were only 3 percent.

Television or radio advertising was used in 21 percent of fraud incidents. The least likely method of attack was telemarketing, 9 percent.

Other common scams aimed at frenzied consumers include unauthorized billing (especially for Internet services), credit card insurance against the misuse of a lost or stolen card, advance fee loans, credit repair, debt consolidation and the classic pyramid scheme.

It’s interesting to know all this. But how does it translate into self-protection?

Don’t take on more debt. Restructure current debt to reduce your discomfort. Take your time and resist the urge to “act now.” Read the small print. Discard anything that says you have to pay to get a gift.

And of course, get even: Complain online at ftc.gov or by phone at 1-877-382-4357.

The full report, “Consumer Fraud in the United States: The Second FTC Survey,” may be found on the web at www.ftc.gov/be/econrpt.shtm.

© C. Stephen Guyer for American City Business Journals Inc. All rights reserved.