As always, read the fine print before you sign
Scams and identity theft have spread in multiple ways and directions through a digital world where criminals always seems one twist ahead of consumers and law enforcement.
Even Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum found out firsthand how an impostor could wrap her into a scheme.
"Two weeks ago, I learned my name and Oregon Department of Justice seal were being used as part of an email scheme, which tricked people into paying money for a debt they didn't owe," Rosenblum said Tuesday.
Rosenblum shared her experience during a Scam Jam event in Medford organized by the state Justice Department.
A quick response kept the scammer using Rosenblum's identity from gaining widespread success, but the overseas perpetrator remains at large.
The conference included an array of speakers from government agencies as well as law enforcement and consumer advocates.
AARP consumer columnist Ron Burley pointed out that complaints from older people have grown from 5 million in 2010 to 12 million last year.
"Seniors are being targeted," Burley said. "Older Americans are simultaneously more trusting — we tend to trust people and want to believe people. We're also more vulnerable. Maybe they are home-bound, just wanting to talk to someone."
Even well-known companies can trip up an uninitiated consumer, he said.
"You get a free trial for something, all you do is give them your credit card and (pay) $4 for postage and handling," Burley said. "But three pages down in the fine print, it says unless you return the trial product in 14 days, including postage both directions, with a letter requesting cancellation, after you've gotten the (return address) code from a special phone number, you are agreeing to be charged $80 a month for the next 12 months.
"So really in that free trial you are obligating yourself to a $960 subscription for teeth-whitening, nutritional supplements, you name it."
Even when consumers get wise to what's happened, the scammers still know how to play the game, unleashing the negative option, he said.
"You vent with them and threaten and they say, 'OK, we've already done the processing for the order for the third month, we will cut it off after three months and let you out of your contract," Burley said. "Most people go, 'Thank you very much, you've just saved me $600.' No, they've just walked away with $240 of your money; the scam was just about the $240."
He said lock-in contracts with early termination fees following installation and monthly charges commonly hit consumers unaware.
"If we have a complaint, our No. 1 option is always to just stop doing business with that company," Burley said. "That's what consumers in a free enterprise system, in a democratic system, do.
"Except we can't, because we are in a lock-in contract and they are going to destroy our credit rating, which means you can't buy a car, you can't buy a house, you can't even rent an apartment, and often these days you can't even get a job because you have a poor credit rating. You get hooked into one of these contracts and your entire life is being held hostage over a $40, 60-month contract, and you have no recourse."
Burley urged consumers to take their time and not be pressured into making decisions. If a cable company or alarm company won't let you read a contract or tell you how you can get out, don't sign a contract.
Ultimately, he said, "Scammers want your money. What they do may be legal, but it's not ethical."
Jeremy Markiewicz, a Jackson County deputy district attorney, discussed forms of investment fraud, including investments that begin on the up-and-up before drifting into illegal territory. He noted some people looking for investors simply don't have the financial wherewithal or sophistication to keep from failing.
Medford police Detective Brent Mak suggested staying away from social media, where personal information can be shared, and shredding all documents before throwing them away.
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.