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Why a Sucker's Phoned Every Minute

By Jane Bryant Quinn
Sunday, February 18 1996; Page H02


Why does telecrime succeed? What makes people send money to a total stranger, who promises them a cash prize, a fabulous vacation, a car, a no-lose investment, a sure-fire business opportunity?

Cynics say "greed." They think it's the victims' own fault when they lose money to telecrooks.

But the true answer is more subtle, as Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) discovered in a study sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons.

Two things make you a possible pushover for a telemarketing pro (including those making legitimate sales calls). One is courtesy: You can't bear to hang up on someone who keeps talking to you. The other is trust: You find it hard to believe that someone would flat-out lie to you. So it's your better self that makes you easy to fool, not your meaner one. You succumb out of hope and faith, not avarice.

Or so it appears from the report on six focus groups, convened by PSRA last year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Focus groups discuss their feelings about a specific subject in depth. PSRA's subject: how people respond to telemarketing calls and what induces them to send money to strangers. Some vulnerable participants had been getting three or more calls a day.

If you recognize any of the following attitudes in yourself, you're more vulnerable than you think.

To begin with, many people believe that the telecrooks are conducting a legitimate business ("You've won a fabulous trip, send $350 to secure it!"). They aren't even sure that telefraud is actually a crime. If their pocketbook were grabbed on the street, they'd know that that person was a thief. But on the phone, they give thieves the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think they know what they're doing," one Fort Lauderdale man said. "They're just doing a job." A Philadelphia participant echoed the sentiment: "I always feel these people who call, they are probably some poor person that's trying to make some extra money."

No way, my friends. They know that you haven't won a trip and they don't care. They're purse snatchers by another name.

Another common trait among victims: They're reluctant to hang up the phone. "The average person is nice and they want to be pleasant and they want to be courteous to somebody that is calling them," one Philadelphia man said. Even the suspicion that they're talking to a crook can't persuade these kind people to be rude. But by staying on the phone, you raise the chance of being scammed. It's the functional equivalent of walking down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood, PSRA says.

So you need to develop a strategy for getting off the line. Maybe words like, "I'm sorry but I'm not interested and I don't want to waste your time but thank you for calling" [click]. Super-polite, yet ending the conversation yourself. It's okay to hang up on crooks! If you don't, they're going to steal into your confidence.

If the word "greed" applies to any telescam victims, it's those who hope to luck into a great opportunity. "What have I got to lose? . . . I really want to hear what they have to say," one woman said. Milwaukee group members agreed they get caught when they are told that they won something. That's why bogus sweepstakes and prize promotions are so popular among crooks.

But other victims, more innocently, thought the sweepstakes legitimate (after all, many are). Or they thought they were buying something of value, like joining a club that supposedly qualified them for free or low-cost trips. "We had a [business] card that was very official. It was like a terrific thing," one woman said. Another woman was impressed by a contract because it "was printed in blue ink and it was duplicated . . . and I had to have two witnesses." Honest people, full of trust.

It's hard to develop warnings that will put trusting people on alert. They may feel defensive if you say that their own good nature leaves them too easily deceived.

So here are some facts and strategies that might help you resist a telecrook's siren song: It's illegal for anyone to ask you to pay anything for a "prize" -- even a shipping cost. Never give your bank account or credit card number to strangers who call. Ask for written information about the opportunity (that will stop many calls right there). Never let anyone send a courier to pick up your check. Tell the salespeople not to call you again. If they do, they're breaking the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act -- a federal law.

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