Post Your Problems/Lawrence Walsh: Postal service, AARP deliver scam warnings

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The goal is to save consumers from themselves. The route is information.

And the information providers are the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement and security arm of the U.S. Postal Service and the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

In addition to their respective websites, information designed to prevent consumers from falling for a foreign lottery scam is contained in an eye-catching purple, yellow, black and white brochure.

The brochures are free and available at your local post office.

Take one for yourself and a few more for older family members, friends and neighbors, especially if they may be vulnerable to "hitting the big one someday."

The brochure gets right to the point on the cover:

"If you have to send $250 [or any amount] to claim your prize, odds are it's a scam. Don't risk it. In a foreign lottery, more than just the odds are against you."

On the second page, the brochure warns gullible consumers to beware of anyone who calls, emails or notifies them by mail that they've "won" a foreign lottery.

The scammers then tell the victims to mail or wire a small amount of money for "taxes and fees" so they can "claim" their prize.

"Never wire or send money to anyone, anywhere, who says you've won a prize," the brochure warns. "NO LEGITIMATE LOTTERY SHOULD ASK YOU FOR MONEY TO CLAIM YOUR PRIZE."

Yes, the postal service and the AARP put that sentence in capital letters because consumers fall for scams every day. It's a multibillion-dollar-a-year problem.

"Older Americans are often targeted by scammers," they added. "Speak with your older loved ones about the consequences of foreign lottery scams. A few protective measures -- taken with their consent -- and a simple conversation about avoiding scams could be the winning ticket to preserving their financial well-being."

Some of those measures include:

• Questioning frequent unknown domestic or international calls.

• Monitoring all accounts for unusual activity.

• Identifying unknown and recurring payments.

• Discussing repeated wire-transfer patterns of checks made out to cash.

• Asking them about stacks of sweepstakes offers or prize notification letters around the house.

• Talking about changes in living conditions -- living beneath one's means, past-due bills, etc.

"Con artists target millions of people every year," the postal service said. "When they succeed, they can seriously affect the lives of victims and their families. We at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are out to stop these criminals.

"You can help by learning to recognize fraudulent offers before they cause damage. While a small percentage of mail is used for fraud, we consider one incident one too many."

Are the postal service and the AARP overstating the problem?

No.

Here's what they say some consumers have lost after falling victim to a foreign lottery scam:

Their homes, cars, bank accounts, jewelry, retirement, security, privacy, credit rating, dreams, vacation and their future.

Victims are encouraged to report the crime to local law enforcement, which can circulate scam alerts within their respective municipalities, the Federal Trade Commission and the postal service.

Although it may be too late for the victims, they may prevent others from being scammed by notifying all financial institutions, wire-transfer services, shipping companies and phone companies.

They also should alert the Social Security Administration because scams may put their benefits at risk.

In addition to immediately closing all accounts involved in a fraud, victims are urged to review security options with their banks to protect their assets and to place a fraud alert on their credit reports and review them regularly.

Finally, use passwords that aren't easily identifiable and contain a combination of letters, numbers and symbols.

Information: www.postalinspectors.uspis.gov (1-877-876-2455); www.aarp.org (1-888-687-2277); www.DeliveringTrust.com; www.aarp.org/protectyourfinances.

yourbiz - larrywalsh

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1895. Please include your day, evening and cell phone numbers. Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email and phone call.


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