- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

COLUMN:

When I answer the phone, I get a recording that says my manufacturer’s car warranty is about to expire and that I should not let that happen. Press “1” to speak to a representative, press “2” to stop the calls. I pressed “2,” but I still get the calls about once a month. … I don’t even own a car.

So reads one of 126 reports at CallerComplaints against a Tuscaloosa, Ala., phone number that users at the telemarketing watchdog have identified as a suspected scammer. The Web site - along with others like 800notes - seeks to compile a database of “annoying telemarketers, relentless debt collectors and telephone scammers.”

Such calls have been on the rise, say consumer advocates, who warn that Americans are more susceptible to being fleeced under adverse economic conditions.

“It’s happening throughout the U.S.,” said Edward J. Johnson III, president and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau for the Washington region.



Mr. Johnson said his BBB branch has received numerous complaints from consumers. Across the country, state attorneys general have been taking action. In Missouri, Attorney General Jay Nixon sued seven firms for calling people who were on the National Do Not Call Registry. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal launched an investigation into the auto warranties scam in March.

“The marketers offer to sell outrageously priced extended warranties, and often ‘phish’ for personal information about the consumer,” his office warned.

Several users who posted on CallerComplaints said callers hung up when asked for more information about the firm or the contract.

In addition to purporting to sell extended auto warranties, scammers have more and more been offering “advanced fee loans” in which they promise a loan in exchange for $500 to $5,000 upfront, Mr. Johnson said. Loan scammers often put up impressive Web sites and even buy ads on Google to dupe victims into thinking they are legitimate firms, he added.

“The fleecers say that it’s needed as a down payment for the loan, it’s needed for insurance on the loan. Inevitably, after consumers send money, they’re requested to send more money because the underwriter said there was too much risk with this individual or some other lame excuse and consumers are falling for it,” Mr. Johnson said.

In both kinds of scams, consumers have virtually no recourse.

“Once they send the cashier’s check by courier or whatever to the scammer, they can consider that money as good as gone,” he said.

As for how scammers acquire numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, “there’s an entire underworld of information that can be sold for almost any price. Whether it’s a credit card number, whether it’s a Social Security number or a telephone number, identity theft and identity thieves are rampant,” Mr. Johnson noted.

Some extended auto warranty offers made by phone are legitimate. So how are consumers to tell the difference?

“If the solicitation comes with a significant amount of pressure to make a decision or to provide a credit card over the phone or to send a money order by courier, then the consumer should consider it a red flag,” he said.

E-mail Kara Rowland.

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