This advice should also be followed if you are advertising in local newspapers.
Carefully look for shipments of office supplies that you didn’t order. Packages will include everything you need to run an office, along with an exorbitant invoice. When questioned, the company may say it’s a late shipment in response to your order and offer a discount to make amends. Don’t be fooled, cautions Griffo. “This is just a ruse to make a sale,” he says. If it’s an honest mistake, the company will ask you to return the merchandise. Otherwise, it’s probably a scam and you should keep the evidence and report the crime to the Postal Inspection Service.
Protect your mail on the Internet. Scare artists pretending to work for Internet service providers (ISPs) send e-mail to members. The message will say that they need to update the member database or they’ve lost data, and ask members to supply account information. “The fear of losing accounts causes people to respond,” says Tatiana Gau, vice president of integrity assurance at America Online, based in Dulles, Virginia. AOL and other ISPs never ask for password or billing information online. “It’s like your ATM PIN,” says Gau. “If you don’t know the person sending the message, don’t download any files attached to it,” she warns. (AOL has set up an online Neighborhood Watch that provides members with tips about scams circulating on the Internet, as well as downloadable software to protect them from Trojan horses.)
Beware of unscrupulous new magazines that want to boost their subscription numbers. Some will send invoices for unordered publications. “Many people will pay, thinking the mistake was theirs,” says Griffo. That’s exactly what the publishers are banking on.
When reporting mail fraud, send copies of the evidence, including letters and invoices, with a brief letter to your local Postal Inspection Service. Keep all receipts, envelopes or packaging with postmarks and addresses.
“Many times we know who the perpetrators are, but we need to build the case with a paper trail,” says Griffo. You probably won’t get your money back if you’ve been a victim, but the U.S. Postal Inspection Service can impose a temporary restraining order so that a swindler can no longer receive mail. Any checks en route will be returned to the people who sent them.
The Federal Trade Commission has published a number of fliers and publications that deal with consumer fraud. For a complete list, write: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; www.ftc.gov.