Elliott Greenblott: Fraud Watch: Back to school also means back-to-school scammers

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Once again "It's the most wonderful time" as back-to-school ads remind us of the season. And once again, we need to be on the lookout for con-artists and scammers who use seasonal anxiety, uncertainty, and possible near panic to prey upon us. These criminals are targeting students and parents from elementary school to post graduate college enrollees. While some scams apply to all ages, these first four seem to be more directed to elementary and high school students and focus primarily on parents.

As soon as the school year begins so does the fundraising: class trips, scholarships, foreign exchange student funding, supplemental supplies or equipment, community improvement — the list goes on. These efforts include selling food or merchandise, cash donations, event tickets, and even home services such as leaf raking. For parents, grandparents, educators and community members, it is natural to want to help kids and schools. Here are a few tips to follow to keep someone from taking advantage of your generosity. When approached by a school fundraiser, verify the identity of the individual and the authenticity of the cause being promoted. If approached by a student or adult you do not know, ask for personal identification as well as their school name, the name of the group raising funds, and the name of the school group sponsor (write down this information). Ask questions about the fund raising: How much money are you trying to raise? What exactly is the money being used for? How will you benefit from this fundraiser? Step away from making the donation or purchase if responses are vague or incomplete and notify the school and local law enforcement of a possible scam. Do not donate until you have been able to complete the verification. Use a check made out to the school or organization if you decide to make the donation. Never use cash or pay using a gift card.

Another caution concerns "Who's Who" programs that email or mail letters to students. These promotions often feature an elaborately complimentary letter of introduction, application form, and an invoice. The program is presented as an exclusive listing of select students who are deserving of special recognition. In some cases, the company promoting the program will state that inclusion will increase the likelihood of college or graduate school acceptance. The letter and accompanying invoice promote the purchase of a copy of the book listing the individuals who are identified by the program. In a number of cases where "the honoree" chooses not to purchase the book, he or she becomes the recipient of a steady stream of promotional mailings and emails pressuring for the purchase. There is no quantitative evidence that inclusion in the program provides benefits to those who complete the personal information form or purchase the registry. In many of these programs, there is no clear explanation of what happens with the personal information submitted to the registry indicating whether it is shared or sold.

Whether K-12 or collegiate, students and parents are always looking for ways to cut costs and reduce the expense of education. This includes searching on-line for sales, deals, and low prices. The final back to school fraud protection tips for this week relate to back to school shopping. Beware of the deeply discounted items; remember the old adage "If it's too good to be true ..." Scammers are adept at creating fraudulent web sites promoting highly sought items such as computers, printers, software, and used textbooks. Use caution and research unrecognized vendors before making a purchase. A simple computer browser search of the company name with the word rating or review can be helpful. Examine the name of the company and be sure that it is legitimate. For example, a fake web site www.micrasoft.com, can be an attempt to fool a buyer into thinking they are buying from Microsoft. Regardless, use a credit card to make your on-line purchases. Major card issuers apply a "zero-liability" policy if someone uses your credit card fraudulently. Questions, comments, concerns? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network coordinator. He produces a feature CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.

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