Sorting Through The Mail

Beware: your mailbox could be a magnet for fraud

Mary Ann Campbell is still scratching her head, wondering how her name and address got circulated among con artists. Campbell is one of thousands of consumers who get caught up in solicitations sent by snail-mail or e-mail each year.

“I don’t know if I put my name on something or entered a contest,” says Campbell, 54, president of Money Magic, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based company that provides financial education services. “But all of a sudden I began getting a barrage of hand-addressed chain letters, asking for everything from recipes to money.”

Campbell’s letter instructed her to add her name to the top of a list and send $1 to each of the names below hers. She was told to purchase 200 envelopes and stamps to create additional lists, and to rent a post office box to handle the mail.

The sender claimed that Campbell would receive cash in the mail in 15-60 days. Recognizing a scam, Campbell immediately turned the letter over to her local assistant attorney general, Jordan Abbott.

While the letter Campbell received was an obvious attempt at fraud, “it’s often very difficult to tell the difference between fraudulent and legitimate solicitations,” says Abbott.

Consumers should keep in mind the following expert advice to help them weed out legitimate mail from rip-off schemes:

Inspect the envelope thoroughly. The return address can be your first clue. “If it’s handwritten or a suite or department has been used, that’s often a mail drop or an apartment,” says Abbott.

Another clue: the face of the envelope includes warnings of severe penalties, such as fines or imprisonment, for unlawful tampering with the mail. “Only the questionable companies use that,” says Abbott. “In our view it’s an attempt to add an aura of legitimacy.”

Be cautious of suggested government connections. “Any sort of name that implies governmental affiliation is an attempt to confuse you,” says Abbott. Legitimate government correspondence will be on letterhead that includes the agency’s official seal. Also beware of cons who try to charge fees for services the government provides for free. These include getting a Social Security number for a newborn, statements of personal earnings or name changes for newlyweds.

Along those lines, keep an eye out for offers to help you recover unclaimed income-tax refunds. The notice will say that the IRS may be holding a check in your name for a specific amount of money. The fine print, however, says that the sender will check to see if the agency has a refund for you–for a fee. “This is an out and out scam,” says Paul Griffo, a media relations representative at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Washington, D.C.

Carefully review invoices bearing the familiar “walking fingers” logo, especially if you’re a business owner. Fraudulent promoters will use it to trick businesses into buying advertising in nonexistent directories or ones with very limited distribution. According to Griffo, genuine Yellow Pages directories will often put the advertising fee on their customers’ phone bills. Make sure the company you use is the one actually sending the bill.

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