Seniors can resist con men

If you're an older adult, chances are there's a con artist looking for you.

He or she might approach you by telephone, by mail or in person.

Every year American con artists rake in an estimated $100 billion; as many as 90 percent of the schemes against individuals target older adults.

Why are seniors singled out? For starters, older adults spend more time at home than younger people, are more trusting, and will patiently listen to telephone pitches. In addition, they tend to read all their incoming mail — even junk mail — and have more money at their disposal than younger people.

And, if you're 65 or older and find yourself the victim of a scam, the scammers know you'll probably keep mum about it, lest your children start to question your ability to handle financial affairs.

Most con artists practice their craft by phone. They might enthusiastically tell the older man or woman on the other end of the line:

*"Congratulations! Our sweepstakes computer has selected you as the winner of a new Cadillac or a trove of uncut gems: You're rich! Our sponsor guarantees your prize but has not funded the shipment and insurance. All you have to do is send your check for $297.50 for shipping and handling, and the prize is yours!"

Thrilled to hear you've "won," you disregard both the fact that you never entered this sweepstakes and the fact that legitimate contest operators never make winners pay for shipping or handling.

Another caller might announce:

*"As you suffer from arthritis, I want to share with you the news that the federal government and the American Medical Association have suppressed information on the one miracle treatment that will cure the disease. If everyone with arthritis used this medication, not only would they be cured, but tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and prescription drug manufacturers would be out of business. But I know how painful and debilitating arthritis can be, so I am calling people who really need the miracles that this new, natural medication can produce, and I am offering to provide you with it, for a price."

A scam? Most certainly. Dangerous? Probably. Costly? It's one of the most expensive medical con games in the business.

A March 1993 study by the Princeton Survey Research Association for the American Association of Retired Persons reports that consumers aged 75 and older are most vulnerable to fraud and deception; the reason is that they are less familiar with basic rules governing the contemporary marketplace and less suspicious of deceitful sales practices.

An FBI sting operation concluded last year that older people were the group most aggressively targeted by nearly 100 illegal telemarketing operations.

Telephone scams operate from "boiler rooms," centers where pitch artists call individuals whose names and numbers appear on lists bought from direct-mail and other solicitation companies.

The con artists might pitch investments, sweepstake prizes, land offers, vacation bargains, medical cures or information; they may solicit contributions alleged to help underprivileged kids attend summer camp or to fund programs aiding Third World children or war victims.

Most often, the investments are worthless, the prizes and vacation bargains nonexistent, the health cures bogus — and if the charitable causes retain any funds at all, it is only after the telephone solicitors skim 90 percent off the top of their gleanings.

How do you recognize a potential fraud? Here's what-law enforcement professionals recommend:

*If the telephone solicitor pressures you for an immediate commitment and/or if the offer sounds too good to be true, suspect a fraud.

*If the pitch-person refuses to send written information or provide a list of credible references, hang up. If any caller demands personal financial and credit card information, refuse to vouchsafe it.

*Do not make any commitment on a first telephone call; never commit either support or funds without first checking the offer.

*Scrutinize any "special offer" or "insider opportunity" arriving by mail from an organization or company with which you are unfamiliar.

*If someone comes to your door bearing a "Social Security bonus check," know that the administration does not hand-deliver checks.

At times of economic stress or national unrest, the number and scope of scam operations multiply. Advances in technology make telephone scam operations easy. If you'd like to reduce your chances of being targeted for a scam, then request to have your name removed from telemarketing and direct-mail lists. These lists are often sold to unscrupulous firms or con artists. The Direct Marketing Association provides two valuable consumer services that will forward your request.

Write separate letters to Telephone Preference Service and the Direct Mail Preference Service, c/o Direct Marketing Association, 6 E. 43rd St., New York, NY 10017. Provide your name, address(es) and telephone number(s) in your letter, specifically requesting your removal from the lists.