Six rules for protecting yourself against cons, scams and grifts

Some people might think they're scam-proof, that no one could get a hand in their pocket on the sly. Barney Wharton, on the other hand, knows that is easier said than done.

"Protecting yourself against a con doesn't take any physical strength or stamina," Wharton said. "It's about knowledge.

"The success of a con depends on two things: the skill and experience of the con artist, and the degree of the victim's awareness and ability to end the con. We're here to teach you how to end the con."

The Community Outreach Director for Dignity Memorial was present at Stafford Suites to give the first of a monthly series of talks on Smart and Safe Living for seniors. The seminars are free to attendees, funded by a non-government organization grant.

Audience members nodded along, and a few shared their own successes in preventing grifts ranging from phone to contractor fraud.

Wharton's six rules were thus:

Rule No. 1: Make your trust hard to earn

"Just because I'm a good-looking guy and I can talk a pretty song doesn't mean I should have your trust," Wharton said.

Natural skepticism is the first line of defense against a scam, he said. If something doesn't feel right, the safe bet is to stay away.

To drive home the importance of the point, Wharton recalled the recent embezzlement of charity funds by a Lakewood police officer.

However, he emphasized that in an emergency it is necessary to trust a public safety officer.

Rule No. 2: Don't be fooled by appearances

"They could come in business wear or contractor's clothes, but they're still the same con artist," Wharton said.

Professional con artists are separated from professional actors by intent only. Because a con artist's goal is to trick the mark into making a bad decision, he adopts a persona that will earn trust.

In other words, don't let ample wool excuse the telltale signs of a wolf.

Rule No. 3: Don't be fooled by vocabulary

Con artists may use obscure jargon to confuse the mark and throw obstacles in the way of their ability to decipher the truth.

To illustrate the point, Wharton recreated a common telephone fraud with his wife Pat. Wharton "called" Pat with the news she had won an all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii. The catch was, the con artist might say, Washington state taxes all prize winnings; but the agency awarding the prize would accept a check and pay the taxes on the "winner's" behalf. The goal, of course, is to take the "tax" check and run.

Phone fraud scams are common and sophisticated, Wharton said.

"Oftentimes, a fraud organization will come into a community like Sumner, set up 50 desks and 50 phones and just run through the white pages," he said.

Bonus tip: Don't give away personal information over the phone. Con artists might inquire about seemingly innocent information such as relatives and the general area where you live. Don't be fooled; that information is more valuable to them than you think.

Rule No. 4: Do your homework

Again, the key to this tip is knowledge. A con artist may have all the external signs of running a legitimate business. But logos, business cards and credentials could easily be forged by anyone with a computer and a printer. Wharton advised contacting the Better Business Bureau and looking through the phone book to ensure a business is on the up-and-up.

Always insist on doing research before making a decision. The added upshot is that insisting on doing research can reveal a scam right away.

"There you are in your home, and a roofer comes to your door," Wharton said. "He says, 'I see you have a roof that needs to be replaced.' He seems legitimate, and he even has a van with a company logo on it. He says a job fell through and he can get you a really good deal.

"But then comes the catch: 'You have to act today.' A con artist wants you to make your decision right now, before you have time to think."

Rule No. 5: Never take a deal that requires cash upfront

A legitimate business will bill a client for services rendered, meaning payment is requested once the business has done its job. By contrast, a con artist wants to take the money and run.

Returning to the roofer example, the con artist might claim he can return to complete work on the roof if he receives a deposit amount up front, Wharton said. But once the deposit is received, he'll be gone without a trace.

The safe bet is to refuse putting money on the table before receiving service.

That rule is trickier when participating in a financial deal, because investments require money upfront to grow. In those cases, always know who's handling your money and how it's being handled. If anything about the deal is mysterious or confusing, don't invest.

Rule No. 6: Stop a con by stopping the conversation

"Preventing a con artist from getting his foot in the door is tricky for our generation, because we were taught to always be polite," Wharton said. "But there is nothing wrong with doing these three things: hang up, walk away and shut the door."

Wharton will return to Stafford Suites to present five more seminars through July:

• March 8: Identity Theft—How to protect your personal information.

• April 12: Safety Out and About—how to avoid purse snatching, ATM fraud and other thefts.

• May 10: Finishing Strong—Estate planning, advance directives, and preplanning final arrangements.

• June 14: Summer Sun and Heat Safety—Hydration tips, precautions for the summer months, and info on heat illness.

• July 12: Home Invasion—how to make your home less inviting to burglars.

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