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To avoid scams, pay attention to red flags

by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - Scam Jam featured speaker Doug Shadel, author of 'Outsmarting the Scam Artists: How to Avoid the Most Clever Cons.' Here he gives advice to a member of the audience. About of half of fraud victims are over 50.

Every day an individual, seemingly safe at home, faces a potential scam, whether it’s at the front door, in the mail, online or on the phone. It’s a ceaseless onslaught of deceit.

Which is why efforts to educate the public, including the Oct. 22 Scam Jam at the Oregon Convention Center, draw such crowds.

It’s not clear how much is lost each year to scams, said Joyce DeMonnin, AARP Oregon’s outreach director — only that it’s huge.

“So many go unreported,” said DeMonnin, who helped organize the Scam Jam.

And it can be surprising how many times scammers are successful, said one Scam Jam attendee who works for the computer chip giant Intel. The employee was scammed through a phone call from a foreign-accented man named “Jeremy” who knew some convincing technical details about the Intel employee’s home computer and offered him a free computer security analysis. That phone call out of the blue ended up costing the victim more than $400 for software, and it probably installed a virus on his computer as well.

“Outsmarting the Scam Artists: How to Avoid the Most Clever Cons,” the title of featured speaker Doug Shadel’s book, formed the basis of Shadel’s advice to the audience.

“Beware of sales people who ask personal questions,” Shadel warned. “It’s a red flag. They’re looking for your Achilles heel and will use that information against you.”

Con artists are master manipulators, with a bag of persuasion tactics to trick people. For instance, with commodities such as precious metals, the tactic could be a claim that the coins are scarce, that only three are known to exist when, in fact, the salesman has an endless supply of them, ready to be marked up by 300 percent.

“The great gift of the con artist is to make the implausible seem plausible,” said Shadel, who is AARP’s Washington State director. Half of fraud victims are over age 50.

The Internet is fertile ground for scammers. And one way they use the Internet is to fake source credibility by claiming that famous figures, often well-known Hollywood actors, endorse their products. Citing one such scam, Shadel said a business selling Internet kiosks hired “Batman” actor Adam West to promote the product. In this case West did not know he was promoting a scam. The scammers promised buyers they’d make money, but instead bilked 700 investors out of $17 million in eight months.

“In the age of the Internet it’s increasingly easy to fake source credibility,” Shadel said.

Another place where scammers use powerful persuasion tactics is on home shopping channels; unwary people living alone are particularly susceptible to grandiose advertising claims.

“One of the persuasion tactics is social consensus — if everyone wants it, it must be good,” Shadel said. “They say, ‘Time’s running out.’”

Shadel offered his own list of scam prevention ideas: Ask more questions than you answer. Never make a buying decision in a heightened emotional state. And develop a refusal script.

When she gets a telemarketing phone call, DeMonnin’s favorite refusal script is: “Hold on a minute, I have something cooking on the stove,” she said. And she puts the phone down and walks away.