Poor dear Ann was running a scam

For one brief moment the scammer had me. It was early in the morning at work and I was going through my e-mails, including this one from "Ann."

My gosh. I'm writing this with tears in my eyes, sorry I did not inform you about our trip. We actually made a quick travel to London and unfortunately got attacked and mugged at gun point on the way to our hotel, all cash, credit card and cell phone were taken away from us but luckily we still have our passport with us.

We've been to the embassy and the police here but they're not helping issues at all and our return flight leaves anytime from now but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills.

Am freaked out at the moment and need help.

I sat there wondering, did I know an Ann who might go to London? Of course, I quickly realized it was a scam. It was just slightly different from the usual e-mail from the executor/nephew/aunt of an estate of a deceased overseas bank president/foreign minister/wealthy industrialist and I've been chosen to inherit/invest/share the money as soon as I respond with important financial information. Right!

Sad to say, reminders of how not to lose money to a crook has become a recurring theme of this column. The list of scams seems endless. Classic pump-and-dump swindles. Deceptive charities. Ponzi schemes. Foreign lotteries. Health care swindles. Mortgage foreclosure scams. Telemarketing snake oil. Credit repair crooks. Job offers that bilk desperate people. If you want to get depressed about all the scams and schemes targeted at consumers read the consumer protection section of the 2010 Federal Trade Commission Annual Report available at www.ftc.gov

Fleecing people is a growth industry, especially now with home prices down, the stock market volatile and a high unemployment rate. Odds are that scamming will continue to grow over the next few decades. A major reason is an aging population. About a third of all victims of fraud schemes are seniors, according to some estimates, even though seniors make up about 15 percent of the population. By the half-century mark the number of people 65 years old and older will have doubled and the population of 85 and older will have nearly quadrupled.

Another factor is that until recently law enforcement authorities seemed more engaged issuing press releases condemning these crimes than actually devoting resources toward capturing and punishing miscreants. That seems to be changing.

In the meantime, the basic message remains time-tested and worth repeating:

•If the money promise is too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

•If you don't understand a product, don't buy it.

•If a broker or adviser is pressuring you to do a deal quickly, don't.

•Never give out your financial information over the phone or the Internet unless you are absolutely sure about the company.

•Never send money to unfamiliar companies or strangers.

•Keep your money and investments well-diversified.

•Talk to family, friends, your lawyer and financial adviser (if you work with professional advisers) before you make a financial move.

•Slam the phone down on telemarketers.

And spike "Ann's" e-mail if you get a message from her. I did.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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