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Seniors Legal Rights

Consumer Protection

Beware of Fraud

Today’s marketplace is an ocean of goods and services offering us so many choices about where to spend our money. Whether it is buying a particular product, purchasing a needed service, or giving financially to a cause we believe in, we want to feel in control of our resources and use them to benefit ourselves and others.

Unfortunately, while providing us many opportunities, that vast marketplace has its share of crooks and thieves eager to swindle unsuspecting consumers. If you are an “older” consumer, you are a special target for con artists. People over the age of 50 represent about 56 percent of scam victims.

Scams come in sizes large and small and can range greatly in complexity. Scams may originate from someone as close to you as your next door neighbor or a stranger halfway around the world. Despite these differences, the crooks that perpetrate these scams have one thing in common. They want to steal your money.

Someday you or someone you know will encounter a scam run by a con artist willing to say just about anything to steal money. It is always a good rule to remember that when a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If someone offers you something big for little or nothing in return, it’s time to walk away.

Most senior citizens grew up in a time when business was done with a simple handshake and a verbal agreement. Transactions were conducted on trust and reputation. Unfortunately, crooks prey on that trust. “Minnesota nice” can work against you. Con artists know that Minnesotans are a polite bunch, willing to listen to sales pitches and promises. The longer the con artist holds your attention, the more likely you are to start believing the pitch.

Fraud can financially devastate older Minnesotans. Most seniors live on fixed incomes such as a pension, and one-fifth of Minnesotans over the age of 60 depend solely on Social Security for income. With fixed incomes it is nearly impossible to replenish bank accounts or money saved for retirement after it is taken by a scam.

Clues to a Con

Be alert to crooked callers and con artists. Don’t fall for their scams. It might help to know they usually use tactics like this:

The following are thumbnail sketches of the most prevalent scams that the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office hears about. Remember, con artists are creative, and they constantly devise new ways to steal your money. We hope this information assists you in recognizing the early warning signs of a scam.

“You-Have-Won” Calls and Mail

You may have already seen or heard this one. You receive a call or a piece of mail that says, “Congratulations, you have just won a fabulous prize. Please choose between diamond ring jewelry, a deluxe vacation, or an entertainment center.” This may seem like your lucky day, but do not let temptation override your good judgment.

Be extremely skeptical because prizes may never be awarded and may not be worth collecting. Sometimes consumers don’t know they have been scammed until they see the so-called “prize.” For instance, that beautifully pictured diamond they say you won might be the size of a pinhead and virtually worthless. That deluxe vacation may be worthless coupons to poor lodging in a place you would never stay. How about that new car? Nothing more than an invitation to a high pressure sales pitch at a dealership.

You can spot this scam almost right away if you look for these clues:

Protect Yourself
You may feel tempted to play along, but for your protection, hang up the phone or throw away the mailing. If you really win a prize, you will get it absolutely free, with no strings or fees attached—Minnesota law says so. Never give out your credit card number, checking account number, or Social Security number. If you had really won, a legitimate company would not request such information. Make sure to report the call or mailing to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

Lotteries

Senior citizens are targets for con artists running lottery scams. Be on alert for telephone solicitations, mailings, and email correspondence promising you riches. These scam artists are offering you nothing but the chance to be taken. Do not let a desire to “strike it rich quick” cloud your better judgment. Watch out for these sure signs of a losing proposition:

Protect Yourself
Participating in a foreign lottery is illegal in Minnesota and violates state and federal law. Only lotteries approved by the State of Minnesota are legal.

Home Improvement Scams

One day when working around the house you may be approached by an individual claiming to be a roofer, a landscaper, or a painter working in the area seeking to do home improvement work for you at a discount. When you have never had contact with this individual or company, take some time to do a little checking. If you don’t, you might be getting set up for poor quality work at a high price. To detect a home improvement scam, watch for these signs:

Protect Yourself
Don’t be pressured. Before you allow any work to be done, contact several local contractors for an evaluation and estimate. Compare the bids and take at least 24 hours to make a decision. A reputable company will give you time to think. Never pay for the work before it’s completed. If you think you have been scammed, contact the local police or sheriff’s office.

Business Opportunities

Scam artists work hard to sell their business opportunities to you, pitching “opportunities of a lifetime” at seminars, on television, in newspaper advertisements, and through mailings. Typical business scams share common characteristics that give them away:

Protect Yourself
Don’t do business on the phone with people you don’t know. Before committing any money, check out all business opportunities with the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General’s Office.

Contests

Deceptive contests lead participants to believe they have won, or are about to win, cash or extravagant prizes. Some Minnesota victims have lost tens of thousands of dollars by spending only $5 to $20 at a time. Watch for these warning signs:

Protect Yourself
Don’t play along. These contests offer nothing but the chance to be taken. Be wary of contests that seem ready to trick you—with stages of competition to get through, or impossible puzzles to solve.

Sweepstakes

Don’t be confused or misled by the many companies that sell products by mail and use contests or sweepstakes to catch your attention. Remember:

Protect Yourself
Remember, you do not have to order merchandise or pay money to enter a contest or sweepstakes. Avoid contests and sweepstakes that want money first.

Recovery Companies

A caller offers to help you recover the money you paid to a dishonest company when you were hoping to receive a prize. The caller asks you to pay a fee for helping you “get your money back.” These services are usually worthless. Often these companies just give you a form letter to fill in and send to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. (The Attorney General is not connected with these companies in any way. The Attorney General does try to help consumers who have problems with sweepstakes, contests, and other prize offers, but there is never a charge for this help.)

Protect Yourself
If you have lost money to a scam, report it to your local law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office. It is difficult to recover money lost to scams, but the Attorney General’s Office will try to get your money back for you. There is no charge for this service.

Chain Letters

These letters promise instant riches while assuring the recipient that the letter is legal. In fact, chain letters are illegal. The promised “payoff” will supposedly come to the participant after he or she follows the directions for continuing the chain. However, this “pyramid” always collapses, creating many losers.

Protect Yourself
Get-rich-quick schemes just don’t pay off. It is impossible to bring in enough new recruits to keep a pyramid scheme afloat. The original promoters may make money, but everyone else down the line will probably lose everything they’ve invested. Ask a persistent caller if they would be willing to explain their proposal to your attorney, accountant, or the Attorney General’s Office.

Bank Scams

In the Bank Examiner Scheme, a swindler poses as an FBI agent, a bank examiner, a police officer, or detective. The con artist will ask to meet with you, pretending to need your help with an investigation. You will be asked to withdraw your money and give it to the phony official. The swindler promises to redeposit your money to you, but you won’t see the money ever again.

Protect Yourself
Banks don’t use citizens to help conduct investigations. If you are contacted by a con artist hoping to use this scheme to steal money from your bank account, contact your local law enforcement agency.

Look-alikes

Many con artists set up fake businesses and charities, using the actual or similar names of real businesses and charities. They want to convince you the business is real so you’ll send them money. Fake or “look-alike” scams often use well-known names of national organizations.

Protect Yourself
Do a little homework so you know who you are really dealing with. Click here for more information on wise charitable giving.

Work-at-Home

Advertisements are placed in local newspapers and small neighborhood papers promising guaranteed earnings of $500 or more per week. The tasks vary, but common scams include stuffing envelopes, preparing mailing lists, and making simple products (such as jewelry or fishing lures). You are asked to send money to obtain the plan. Sometimes you won’t receive anything. Other times you will receive instructions telling you to duplicate the process by which you were conned.

Protect Yourself
Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Advance Fee Schemes

You may receive a letter, fax, or email from a person representing himself/herself as a “banker,” “attorney,” “government official,” or “widow” from a foreign country. Letters are usually marked “urgent” or “confidential” and postmarked from Nigeria or other foreign countries. The letter proposes that you let this person use your bank account to transfer money to this country. The amounts proposed for this transaction are often $10,000,000 or more. You are offered a percentage of the money (often 30 percent) for assisting with the transfer of funds. To prove your honesty, you will be asked to pay a fee or tax up front. Of course, the person who contacted you is phony, and you won’t see your money again.

Variations of the Scam
Other forms of so-called “advance fee” fraud schemes have also surfaced. They include prepayment for products via auction websites, advance fee credit offers, and others. For instance, one scam artist asked a person selling a car over the Internet to cash a check for $200 over the price of the car and send the $200 overpayment back to the scam artist. In reality, the check was a forgery. In the latest twist of this scam, the fraudster poses as an American soldier trying to wire money out of Iraq. Scam artists are constantly looking for ways to evolve advance fee fraud schemes to avoid detection, so be on guard against other variations of this scam.

Protect Yourself
If you receive such a solicitation, don’t disclose your personal information! Throw away or delete the solicitation. If received by mail, forward it to the United States Postal Inspector. Do not respond to the solicitation.

Pen Pal Schemes

Prison inmates often disguise their prison addresses to secure pen pals. Through correspondence, these “pen pals” will try to gain your confidence so they can rip you off. One common scheme run by inmates involves money orders. They will have someone outside of prison purchase a money order for a small amount of money. Then, the inmate doctors the money order so it looks like it’s worth a lot more than it really is. They will send the fraudulent money order to you, asking you to cash it and send the money back to them. When the discrepancy in dollar amounts is finally noticed, the fraud will catch up with you, and you will be responsible to pay the difference.

Protect Yourself
Be careful. Doing a favor for an inmate could get you into trouble.

Credit Card Scams

Unless you initiate the call and expect to be charged for something, don’t give anyone your credit card number for any reason. Consumers who give their credit card numbers to strangers over the phone often are left with expensive and troublesome results. Giving your credit card number to someone is like handing over a signed, blank check.

A variation of this scam involves telemarketers who say they need your credit card number—or its expiration date—for “verification.” They claim that once they “verify” who you are, you will receive a “free offer” or a “prize.” Don’t fall for it.

Another common scam is the offer for a “guaranteed” credit card after payment of a small fee. If you get anything for your money, it might just be a listing of banks that offer credit cards.

Use your credit wisely. Watch out for shrinking grace periods, quick due dates, as well as high fees for late charges, over-the-limit charges, and others.

Protect Yourself
Guard your credit card numbers and other personal information. Don’t ever give out your credit card number or checking account number to callers you don’t know. Know that con artists sell information to other con artists. If you enter one contest, or give your credit card number to one con artist, chances are this information will be in the hands of more dishonest people who will contact you.

Door-to-Door Sales

Some legitimate products are sold door-to-door, but con artists may also come calling. If you are considering making a purchase from a door-to-door seller, get everything in writing, including price, warranties, and all conditions. Tell the seller you’ll check their offer out and get back to them. Be firm. Don’t buy on impulse. You can do business on your own terms. Take the time to investigate both the seller and the offer. Follow these guidelines:

Protect Yourself
Do business on your terms. You don’t need to be polite to strangers whom you did not invite to visit your home.

Cashier’s Checks and Money Orders Are Not Always Secure!

It has long been ingrained in us that cashier’s checks and money orders are more secure than other forms of payment, and that their funds are somehow guaranteed. This is not the case if the document is fake! A check is not worth the paper it’s printed on until the bank it was issued from releases the money. Federal rules require banks to make deposits “available” to consumers quickly, often the following business day. It takes considerably longer, however, for your financial institution to actually “collect” the funds. It may take a bank weeks to discover that the deposited check was fraudulent! The bottom line is that while the funds may be available in your account within days of your deposit, the check may take weeks to clear, or bounce. Scam artists prey on those who mistakenly believe that once funds are designated “available” by their bank, the check is legitimate. Furthermore, once a victim wires funds onward from such a check, he or she may be liable to the bank for the amount wired. Typically the bank will not cover the loss, and will expect the victim to pay the difference.

Remember these tips to avoid fake check scams:

  1. Cashier’s checks are NOT the same as cash! Just because the money appears to be available in your account doesn’t mean that the check has cleared and is legitimate. Counterfeit cashier’s checks can look authentic, but the bank will still bounce the check if it’s a forgery!
  2. Do not wire money to strangers! Many people mistakenly think that wire transfers, like personal checks, can be canceled at anytime. This is not true. If you wire money via Western Union or MoneyGram, it’s impossible to retrieve the money once it’s picked up at the other end. Because the money can be picked up anywhere in the world, it is virtually untraceable. Once money is wired overseas, United States law enforcement agencies have little or no ability to recover the funds.
  3. Beware of overseas buyers. Never wire money to someone you don’t know overseas!
  4. Always be wary of someone who wants to pay more than your asking price. A deal that sounds too good to be true probably is.
  5. Be wary of “third parties” or “agents.” If a third party is actually owed any money, their client should be making the payment, not you. Do not wire money to a third party or agent!
  6. Attempt to locate the source of the check and verify its legitimacy by contacting the issuing bank. Do not use the contact information that appears on the check. Do a little leg work and obtain the contact information independently through legitimate directories.
  7. Don’t be rushed. If someone really wants to do business with you, they will wait until you are ready to make a legitimate transaction. Furthermore, if an individual wishes to make changes to the terms of the transaction, such as where and how the payment is sent, do not let your eagerness to complete the transaction blind you to potential problems.
  8. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Identity Theft

Identity theft is usually more complex than an ordinary case of credit card fraud. Armed with just one or two pieces of identifying information, such as your Social Security number, birth date, or address, a thief can assume your financial identity, access your existing accounts, and obtain a wide range of goods, services, and credit accounts in your name.

Identity theft may take months for you to detect, and sometimes years or longer to unravel. Below you will find tips to reduce your risk of identity theft and information on what to do if you believe your identity has been stolen. For more information contact the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and request a free copy of Guarding Your Privacy: Tips to Prevent Identity Theft.The booklet provides additional information on how to protect your privacy, safeguard your personal data, avoid identity fraud, and what to do if you find yourself a victim of identity theft.

Reduce Your Risk of Identity Theft
What to Do if You’re a Victim

Take Action Immediately

Contact the three major credit bureaus to request that a fraud alert be placed on your credit reports and that a note be included to inform potential creditors that you should be contacted before any additional accounts are opened. Consider putting a “freeze” on your credit reports as well. Each credit bureau will instruct you on what additional documentation you will need to provide for a “freeze.” Remember, there is no charge for a victim of identity theft; however, you will need to provide the credit reporting agencies with a copy of either the police report or case number documenting the theft to avoid the $5 fee.

Contact the security or fraud divisions of all banks and creditors that maintain accounts for you. Close all accounts that you believe have been compromised by the identity thief and change account numbers for each account you don’t cancel. Request that banks and creditors make your accounts accessible only through use of a password.

Cancel stolen checks. If the thief steals your checks or sets up fraudulent bank accounts in your name, report it to each of the major check verification companies (phone numbers are listed on page 59). Ask for stop payments on any outstanding checks that you dispute, and cancel or obtain new numbers for your checking and savings accounts.

Report identity theft and stolen credit cards and checks to your local police or sheriff as soon as you are aware of the theft. For your records, keep a copy of the incident reports you file. A law enforcement record of the incident is important because it will allow you to present your creditors and banks with proof of the crime.

File a report with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Ask the FTC for a complaint number for your records.

Keep detailed records of all interactions and contacts you have with businesses, creditors, and governmental agencies while you are reclaiming your identity. Be sure to follow up in writing and send all letters “return receipt requested” so you know your correspondence was received and by whom. Detailed records will be important later if you choose to bring an action in court to recover damages. Keeping good records also provides a written history of conversations so you don’t forget important details..

Fraud Alert
You may place a fraud alert on your file by calling just one of the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies. As soon as that agency processes your fraud alert, it will notify the other two, who must then also place fraud alerts in your file.

Equifax: (800) 525-6285
Experian: (888) 397-3742
TransUnion: (800) 680-7289

Don’t Give Up
Stand up for your rights. You cannot be held responsible for checks cashed or any bills that are the result of the theft of your identity. You should not live under the fear of legal action being brought against you. Your credit rating should not be affected permanently. Don’t let businesses, collection agencies, or banks pressure you into paying any bill that is not your responsibility. Let them know you are willing to cooperate to resolve the situation, but don’t let anyone take advantage of you. For additional information on identity theft call the Minnesota Attorney General’s Citizen Assistance Line at (651) 296-3353 (Twin Cities Calling Area) or (800) 657-3787 (Outside the Twin Cities).

Consumer Rights

If a product or service disappoints you, it is your right to complain. In addition, Minnesota law also provides protection for consumers. The recipe for consumer satisfaction is to know your rights and use them.

Three-Day Cooling-Off Law

Minnesota’s Home Solicitation Sales Act (more commonly known as the “Three-Day Cooling-Off Law”) provides important protection when a seller contacts you in your home, over the telephone, or at a place other than the place of business of the seller and you buy goods or services that are primarily for personal, family, or household purposes. When the purchase price is more than $25, you have three business days to cancel the sale. Cancellation under this law must be made in writing. Keep a copy of your letter. Mailing the letter by certified mail gives you added protection. You will know the letter was received, and you will know who signed for it. But remember, the law does not cover sales conducted at a normal place of business, like a store or car dealership.

Writing a Complaint Letter

When you want to let a company know that its product or service has disappointed you, a complaint letter can be an effective means of communication. You have the right to complain. Writing a letter gives you the opportunity to describe your disappointment, and let the company know what you expect it to do for you. (If you pursue your complaint in person or over the phone, keep notes of the conversations, including whom you talked to and when.)

When you sit down to write a complaint letter, first take time to organize your thoughts. Here are some additional tips to keep in mind:

Where to Send Your Complaint Letter

Filing a Consumer Complaint

If your problem is not resolved, you may decide to file a consumer complaint with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. Attach the letter and copies of all documents you sent to the company. Include information about everything you have done to try to resolve your complaint.

The Attorney General’s Office provides free mediation to resolve disputes between consumers and businesses. Mediation is an informal process that requires the voluntary participation and cooperation of all parties. Mediation works well when all parties are willing to make reasonable compromises. In fact, the Attorney General’s Office successfully resolves most of the complaints it receives—returning money to Minnesota consumers.

Unfortunately, not all disputes can be resolved through mediation. Sometimes the communication between parties breaks down and cannot be restored, or one side may be unwilling to compromise. Or, in some cases, a company may be out of business and unable to provide assistance. If you are not satisfied with the results of mediation, Attorney General’s Office staff will often refer you to the best source for assistance, or explain the options you may have to pursue your claim. Sometimes pursuing a more formal resolution, such as taking the matter to court, may be appropriate.

Mediation through the Attorney General’s Office can only take place before you start formal action (such as arbitration or a lawsuit). The Attorney General’s Office cannot represent private citizens in legal cases.

Legal Action

Taking legal action should be your last resort. However, if you decide to exercise this right, be aware that you might have to act within a certain time period. Conciliation court, often referred to as “small claims court,” where you don’t have to hire an attorney, may also be an option for you. You can request the complaint papers and get general information from the court administrator in the county in which you reside. The maximum claim you can currently seek through conciliation court is $15,000. Contact the Attorney General’s Office to receive a copy of our publication Conciliation Court: A User’s Guide to Small Claims Court.

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office

The Attorney General’s Office answers questions regarding numerous consumer issues. The Attorney General’s Office also provides mediation to resolve disputes between Minnesota consumers and businesses and uses information obtained from consumers to enforce the state’s consumer protection laws. If you have a consumer complaint, please contact the Attorney General’s Office at:

Minnesota Attorney General’s Office
445 Minnesota Street, Suite 1400
St. Paul, MN 55101

Citizens can also receive direct assistance from a consumer specialist by calling:

(651) 296-3353 (Twin Cities Calling Area)
(800) 657-3787 (Outside the Twin Cities)
TTY: (651) 297-7206 or TTY: (800) 366-4812
(TTY numbers are for callers using teletypewriter devices.)

Consumer Publications
Consumer publications are available free of charge from the Attorney General’s Office. Contact us to receive copies by mail, or preview publications here.

Get the Most for Your Money

To ensure that you are satisfied with every purchase, follow these tips:

Reducing Telemarketing Calls

Place Your Number on the National Do Not Call Registry

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) maintains a national “do not call” list. You may register up to three phone numbers at one time (including your cell phone number) by visiting www.donotcall.gov.external link icon You may register one phone number at a time (including your cell phone number) by calling (888) 382-1222, but you must call from the phone number you want to register.

Telemarketers covered by the National Do Not Call Registry have up to 31 days from the date you register to stop calling you.

Not All Telemarketing Calls Are Blocked—Important Exemptions

Some calls are exempt from the “do not call” law. Examples of exempt calls include:

  1. Political calls,
  2. Nonprofits soliciting contributions on their own behalf,
  3. Calls from companies that only conduct surveys, and
  4. Calls from companies with which you have an existing business relationship.

Stopping Calls from Exempt Companies and Organizations
Even if the company or organization contacting you is exempt from the National Do Not Call Registry, you may still request that it place you on its own “do not call” list. The federal law requires companies to honor your request for privacy. Companies that violate this law and continue to call you may be subject to a fine of up to $16,000 per call.

Avoid “Do Not Call” Scams

Calls asking you to confirm your registration by providing personal information or charging you a pre-registration fee are scams. The FTC does not allow private companies or other third parties to “pre-register” consumers. Registration is free, and no confirmation of personal information is necessary.

Reporting a Violation

To file a complaint or to report a violation, consumers should contact the FTC as follows:

Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20580
(877) 382-4357
TTY: (866) 653-4261
www.consumer.ftc.gov external link icon

Reducing Unwanted Mail

Stop Pre-Approved Credit Card Offers

The three major credit bureaus sell lists of individuals who meet certain credit criteria. To remove your name from the generated lists, call the “Opt Out” hotline for the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) at (888) 5-OPTOUT or “opt out” online at www.OptOutPrescreen.com.external link icon You may choose to “opt out” of such offers for five years or permanently. If you do choose to “opt out” and decide that you want to receive such offers again, you can “opt in.”

Put Your Name on the Data & Marketing Association’s (“DMA”) Mail Preference Service List

If you wish to “opt out” of DMA mailing lists, send a letter with your complete name (including variations), mailing address, and email address, along with a check or money order made out to DMA in the amount of $1 for each name to:

DMAchoice
Data & Marketing Association, Inc.
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512
www.dmachoice.org external link icon

Your name should be removed from DMA member lists for three years. (It may take up to three months for you to see a decrease in the amount of mail you receive.) Remember, this does not eliminate all junk mail. You will continue to receive mail from companies and organizations that do not belong to the DMA.