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Editorial: Beware of grandparent, debt scams

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The scammers are out in full force and the public needs to be aware of them on a couple of fronts.

Whenever college students are away, scammers could be using their absences to take advantage of their grandparents back home. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) advises being on the lookout for "Grandparents Scams," which take on a number of forms, but always involve a request for cash tied to a story about a hardship a grandchild is facing.

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The scammer, posing as the grandchild, will call asking for money to pay for tuition or textbooks, fix a car, get out of jail or leave a foreign country. The grandparent is asked not to tell anyone else about the situation.

With many college students using Facebook to share updates and future plans with friends and family members, it's not difficult for a scammer to seek out a student planning a vacation, learn about their plans, follow their travel, and study up on the student's family members and personal details. When a scammer calls the grandparent, he's likely to be able to spin a convincing story. To further sell the scam, a second person may also call the grandparent, claiming to be a police officer or a bondsman.

Here are some tips for handling a potentially fraudulent call for help:

--No matter how dramatic the story sounds, don't wire money. The chances of recovery are slim to none. Also, don't send a check or money order by overnight delivery or courier. Con artists recommend these services so they can get one's money before the cheating has been realized.

--Never provide bank or credit card account numbers--regardless of the reason.

--Resist the pressure to act immediately. Try to contact the grandchild at a number known to be accurate, such as a home or cell phone number, before transferring money. If not having the grandchild's phone number, get in touch with their parent, spouse or another close family member to check out the story before sending any money--even if asked to keep the call a secret.

--Remember, some imposters research the people they are posing as and can answer basic questions about them. Try to identify the caller's identity by asking personal questions a stranger couldn't answer.

--Don't fill in the blanks. Refrain from mentioning other family members' names or personal information. If the caller says, "It's your granddaughter," respond with "Which one?" Most likely, the caller will hang up.

--If unable to reach a family member and still not sure what to do, call the Bureau of Consumer Protection or local police on the non-emergency line. They can help with sorting things out.

--If receiving repeated fraudulent calls, contact the local telephone company for assistance and file a complaint with the police immediately.

For more information about grandparent scams or other fraudulent activities targeting elderly populations, visit the Consumer Protection website at www.datcp.wisconsin.gov, send an e-mail to datcphotline@wisconsin.gov or call 1-800-422-7128.

Fake debt collectors are another group being brought to the public's attention. The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) reports these would-be scammers attempt to collect money on loans consumers never received or on loans consumers did receive, but for amounts they don't owe. In other cases, the callers attempt to recover money on loans consumers received, but authorization to collect the debt hasn't been given by the creditors.

The following tips have been issued for consumers who are suspicious of a caller who's attempting to collect a debt over the phone:

--Ask the caller for name, company, street address and phone number. Refuse discussing any debt with the caller until getting a written "validation notice" through the U.S. mail. The notice must include the amount of the alleged debt, the name of the collection agency, the name of the creditor allegedly owed and rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

--Stop speaking with the caller. If not provided a written notice from the collector, refuse to speak with the caller. If continuing to receive calls, hang up on the caller or don't answer subsequent calls.

--Don't give the caller personal financial or other sensitive information. Never give out or confirm personal financial or other sensitive information such as bank account, credit card or Social Security number unless knowing who's being dealt with. Scam artists such as fake debt collectors can use this information to commit identity theft.

--Contact the creditor. If the debt is legitimate--but suspecting the collector may not be--contact the creditor about the calls. Share the information available about the suspicious calls and find out who, if anyone, the creditor has authorized to collect the debt.

--Report the call. Contact the Department of Financial Institutions (www.wdfi.org or 800-452-3328), the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov or 877-382-4357) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (www.IC3.gov).

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