Protect Yourself and Loved Ones from Mail Fraud
By Leah Lancione
Founded by Ben Franklin, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) is a federal law enforcement agency that works in conjunction with U.S. attorneys, other law enforcement agencies and local prosecutors on potential criminal cases that involve fraudulent use of the U.S. mail system.
The USPIS website (https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov) defines instances of fraudulent use of the postal system as mail fraud (mystery shopper scams and work-at-home schemes), financial fraud (charity, credit card and investment fraud such as Ponzi schemes, fraud against older Americans, in addition to sweepstakes and lottery fraud (free vacation scams, foreign lotteries by mail and free-prize schemes). The UPIS also directs citizens on what to do with junk or spam email with falsified information that involves the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). In fact, USPIS agents enforce over 200 federal statutes relating to the USPS mail.
Fraud targeting older citizens, you ask? Well, the sad reality is it’s widespread. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) explains that “financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered “the crime of the 21st century.” Seniors are targeted because it’s assumed they have a large reserve of savings. The victims of these crimes are often contacted by phone or mail with an unsolicited offer and asked to offer up their financial information or asked to make a purchase or immediate decision. According to Fraud.org, “fraudulent telemarketers aren’t just pushy salespeople trying to make a living, they are hardened criminals out to take their victims’ life savings. They’re so good at what they do, they can even persuade people to mortgage their homes to participate in phony sweepstakes, investment offers, and other schemes.”
How do we protect ourselves and loved ones from these fraudulent schemes? Fraud.org says the first step is to recognize that the people behind mail fraud and telemarketing schemes are criminals out to steal their money. Furthermore, these crimes are punishable by fines and/or jail time. Once folks accept this fact, they are more likely to hang up, shred unwanted mail and report scams. The next step is to know some signs or “red flags” of fraud:
- a promise of winning, making or borrowing money quickly and easily;
- a demand for immediate action to take advantage of an opportunity;
- a refusal to send written information before the purchase or donation;
- scare tactics to persuade a purchase;
- insistence that money be wired or a payment be made for pickup by a courier;
- a refusal to stop calling even after you’ve asked them to stop;
- excessive mail for contests, free trips, prizes or sweepstakes;
- frequent calls for once-in-a-lifetime offers or for charitable donations;
- requests for large or repeated payments to companies abroad;
- a requirement to purchase multiple magazine prescriptions.
Let the seniors in your life know that they should look out for emails from unknown but seemingly legitimate organizations asking them to update their financial information—with some cases even falsely insinuating it’s for Internal Revenue Service tax purposes. Investment schemes are also common and involve folks being asked to invest their retirement money in a pyramid scheme. Seniors should also be wary of reverse mortgage scams that entail unsecured reverse mortgages and not official home refinancing. Lastly, lottery/sweepstakes schemes are scams requiring the recipient to make an initial payment to “unlock” or pay taxes on the larger monetary award that never arrives or a check that ends up bouncing at the bank.
Seniors or their loved ones should report their complaints regarding an act of fraud to the USPIS. The agency’s website has an online complaint form that is easily accessible.