October 4, 1997 in Nation/World

Government Strike Force Targets Telemarketing, Mail-Order Fraud

David Segal Washington Post
 

Two years after she sent $399 to a mail-order vacation company for a trip to the Bahamas, Beryl Lyons has yet to visit the Caribbean. But she has been taken for quite a ride.

Soon after she sent the check, Lyons said she was swamped with calls offering her a variety of foreign lottery tickets and sweepstakes winnings, prizes that could be collected by handing over some cash. And hand it over she did.

“Over the course of just two short years, I depleted my savings and charged more than $50,000 to my credit cards, charges I cannot pay,” said Lyons, who now supplements her Social Security by working at a supermarket in Massachusetts.

Lyons told her story at a press conference Wednesday at which federal law enforcement authorities announced a national crackdown on mail and telemarketing fraud targeting senior citizens, crimes that bilk $4 billion from consumers annually.

Officials at the Federal Trade Commission, the National Association of Attorneys General and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said that as part of “Project Mailbox” they had initiated 190 separate law enforcement actions, including a number of criminal indictments, against mail and telephone scam artists across the country.

Additionally, the American Association of Retired Persons said it was joining the fight by asking 10,000 members to forward suspiciouslooking solicitations to a strike force of federal and state law enforcement agencies.

“We’ve been in a reactive mode, and sometimes it takes victims three to five months to know that they’ve been scammed,” said Collot Guerard, an FTC attorney who is among the leaders of the multi-pronged effort. “If this works as it’s supposed to, we’ll get the solicitation around the same time as the consumers, and that’ll give us a far better chance at shutting down these criminals before they do any financial damage.”

But stanching the flow of fraudulent mail and phone calls won’t be easy, as there seems to be a never-ending supply of consumers willing to give cash to con artists making far-fetched promises about trips and prizes. Seniors are frequently preyed upon, government officials said, because they tend to be more trusting, often have plenty of cash in their bank accounts and are likely to be home during the day.

“We are fighting mad, and we are fighting back,” said Margaret Dixon, AARP’s president.


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