Federal, State, And Private Sector Join in National Campaign Highlighting Efforts to Stop Mail Fraud
Pledging a continuing law enforcement effort against mail fraud that costs both consumers and businesses millions of dollars a year, the Federal Trade Commission and its partners, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) highlighted initiatives taken during the last year to "Catch the Bandit in Your Mailbox." At a news conference today in Washington, D.C., federal and state officials issued a report on law enforcement actions taken against hundreds of con artists who defraud consumers using direct mail, spam, and unsolicited faxes.
"We want consumers to know that they have the power to Catch the Bandit in their Mailbox," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Most mailbox scams are variations on a theme," Bernstein cautioned. "They usually promise easy money or 'guarantee' a 'fabulous' prize or vacation. To outwit that crafty Bandit, all of us should filter these offers with a skeptical eye and toss mail that 'sounds too good to be true, because it probably is!'"
"Thanks to the sweepstakes industry, adult Americans have something in common. More than 90 percent of adults have received a postcard or letter telling them that they may have won a prize," said Indiana Attorney General Jeff Modisett. "Unfortunately, many people are tricked by deceptive or fraudulent promotions that bilk hundreds of thousands of consumers out of tens of millions of dollars a year. State Attorneys General have been leaders in seeking to curb sweepstakes abuses, trying to focus a brighter light on the dark side of an industry many people tend to view as harmless, or at worst, an annoyance."
According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, fraud schemes account for billions of dollars in losses to consumers annually. Telemarketing fraud alone costs consumers $40 billion per year. Regarding fraud, the real crime is that it probably would not occur if victims are made aware of how to protect themselves. Victims of fraud must first make a choice to participate in an offer that seemed to good to be true. Unfortunately, law enforcement is just beginning to realize that criminal prosecutions alone will not significantly reduce fraud. Understandably, those convicted and sentenced for fraud violations, do not receive as severe a punishment as do those sentenced for violent crimes. Individuals apprehended for fraud typically receive short terms of imprisonment and rarely pay their assessed fine or restitution. Once a victim loses his or her money, the odds are against their recovering it. "The best way to fight back is through prevention," said Lawrence E. Maxwell, Inspector in Charge, Mail Fraud Programs, U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "The U.S. Mail is the one means of communication that reaches every home and business in this country -- every day. Help us deliver the Project Mailbox message, and together we can significantly reduce fraud!"
Nancy M. Smith, Director of the SEC's Office of Investor Education and Assistance, called self-protection key to fraud prevention. "One of the saddest things to tell a fraud victim is that we've caught the crooks, but their lifetime savings are gone," Smith said. "The good news is that by arming yourself with information and checking out all offers, you can disarm the bandit in your mailbox."
At the news conference, Bernstein announced that over the past year, the FTC and its partners have initiated a nationwide public service campaign using the Internet. Unveiling a new "Bandit" logo, Bernstein said that a number of major trade associations have agreed to post the "Bandit" logo on their website. This banner PSA will link a website visitor to all of the consumer and business education materials related to "Project Mailbox." "Over the next few weeks, the 'Bandit' logo will begin appearing on the associations' websites, and we are grateful to our newest contributing partners for their participation," Bernstein added.
In addition, Bernstein noted that over the past year, there has been an increase in the sources of fraud complaints submitted to "Consumer Sentinel," -- a national fraud database used by law enforcers in the United States and Canada. "Last year," Bernstein said, "there were four local Better Business Bureau offices forwarding their complaints to Consumer Sentinel. Now there are 31. And a new partner, the American Society of Travel Agents, has agreed to forward fraud-related complaints it receives to Consumer Sentinel, and to display the "Bandit" banner as well.
The FTC also released a report outlining the hundreds of law enforcement actions targeting mass mail fraud brought by the agency, the state Attorneys General, the USPIS, and the SEC.
In concluding, Bernstein outlined the FTC's consumer education campaign to help consumers avoid getting scammed. Tips for consumers include:
- Don't pay for a "free"gift.
- If an offer asks for money in advance to claim a prize or enter a contest, don't send it.
- If a solicitation looks like a government document, pitch it. The government doesn't solicit.
- Document your transactions, and keep the envelopes. They are proof that the mails were used for fraudulent solicitations.
- Never give out your credit card or bank account numbers in response to mail from an organization you don't know.
- Check out the organization with the Attorney General or Better Business Bureau in your state or the state where the company is located before you send money for any product or service.
- Call the FTC if you want more information or you think you've been scammed. Toll-free: 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357).
- You also may call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Mail Fraud Complaint Center. Toll-free: 1-800-372-8347.
Copies of the "Catch the Bandit in Your Mailbox" consumer and business education materials are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
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