Anchorage Daily News Opinion Article

Beware the liars

Con artists target Alaskans and they're good at the game

(Published: September 18, 2006)

Alaska has another unwanted NO.1 ranking. We topped the Federal Trade Commission list for per-capita fraud complaints in 2005. This includes fraud by phone, e-mail, snail mail and Internet, fraud dressed as overseas riches, sweepstakes opportunities, lottery winnings, prizes and promotions.

Alaskans reported 1,654 complaints. Of those, 723 reported how much they lost: The average loss was $1,062. What kind of deals are these? Scammers often tell victims they've won a prize of some sort -- now the scammers just need a check to cover fees, servicing or taxes. Or maybe they just need a credit card or Social Security number. That opens the way to a serious financial bite and identity theft.

Or they'll use the cashier's-check scam, as described by assistant attorney general Ed Sniffen of the state's Consumer Protection Unit. You've won a big prize in the Canadian lottery, but we need $1,500 to cover processing and international duties. What? That's a lot? Tell you what, we'll advance you a cashier's check for $1,500. Deposit it in your bank account and immediately wire us the $1,500. But, surprise, the check is as bogus as the prize and your $1,500 is gone for good.

"I can guarantee you have not won the lottery," Mr. Sniffen says.

Or scammers will salt the wound by calling victims and pretending to represent a law firm or government agency trying to recover their losses. We have a check for you, but you need to cover the legal fees.

Sally Hurme, an expert on elder abuse and fraud for AARP, visited Alaska last week and had some simple advice for seniors and anyone else targeted by phone telemarketing scammers. Give the telemarketer one of three replies:

  • I don't do business over the phone.
  • I want to wait until tomorrow.
  • I need to check this out with a friend or family member.

"That could save Alaskans millions," said Ann Secrest, AARP's Alaska communications director.

We'd add to that list simply hanging up the phone, a defense seconded by Mr. Sniffen.

Ms. Hurme's advice is particularly appropriate for older people who are inclined to courtesy and to give a caller the benefit of the doubt, which sometimes is all the scammer needs to begin the theft.

AARP, an organization for people 50 and older, focuses on fraud because so many fraud victims are over 50 -- about 57 percent, according to a 2001 AARP national survey. Senior citizens may be especially vulnerable because of disabilities, social isolation, fear of intimidation, and their own dreams for children and grandchildren. They often have assets, and scammers go where the money is. As Mr. Sniffen says, older people may be wise to the hustle by phone but gulled by the less familiar e-fraud.

None of us, at any age, likes to think we could fall for such a con. But the ugly game of con criminals works often enough to be profitable -- worth about $40 billion a year, according to one congressional estimate.

So, please follow Ms. Hurme's advice. And Mr. Sniffen's -- hang up. Hit the delete key. Get wise.

"Education is the best defense," Mr. Sniffen says.

And if you suspect a fraudulent pitch, don't hesitate to call state, local or federal agencies for help.

It's satisfying to think there's a special place in hell for those who prey on the old and the weak. It's more satisfying to imagine no place on Earth for them -- or at least no business in Alaska.

BOTIOM LINE: Fight fraud by refusing to be a victim. For help, contact AARP at 762-3302; the state's predatory lending referral hotline at 1-888-925-2521; Better Business Bureau, 562-0704; National Fraud Information Center, 1-800-876-7060; Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Response Center, 1-877-382-4357; or the state's Consumer Protection Unit, 269-5200 in Anchorage, or toll-free 1-888-576-2529. Also, AARP and the Better Business Bureau will present a free seminar called "Scam Jam 2006" at the BP Energy Center from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 16. The public is welcome.

'Weapons of Fraud'

Here's a way to battle con artists by the book. The book is "Weapons of Fraud: A Source Book for Fraud Fighters." The authors are Anthony Pratkanis, a professor of psychology at the University of California, and Doug Shadel, AARP's Washington state director and a former fraud investigator.

They take the reader on a tour of what con criminals do and why it works. They include transcripts of tape recordings of scammers made by undercover investigators that range from laughable to chilling, from soft sell to verbal abuse.

They explain the psychology of the con -- how the predator deceives his prey. They also give some history of that psychology, from how a poor painting called "September Morn" became a best seller in the 1920s to Edgar Allan Poe's account of con men of the mid-19th century.

And they show how people who think they're too smart to be had can be had with just a little effort.

If you've seen or read David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" about boiler room real estate salesmen, you'll have a clue to the world and ways the authors reveal. These are not the likable con men of "The Sting."

The book, which includes a CD of recorded conversations with telemarketing scammers, is free. And that's no con. The local office of AARP has copies available at the Frontier Building, 3601 C St., Suite 1420; 762-3302;

They say knowledge is power. Here's knowledge.

-- Frank Gerjevic