Too good to be true? Avoid 'limited time offer' scam

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, center, eads the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, which, among other things, investigates fraud.

Too good to be true: Remember this as one of the most accurate comments ever made regarding scams.

Con artists rely on our naivete and attraction to promises of free goods or product offers that claim to charge only shipping fees.

Recent alerts from the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau and state attorneys general warn consumers to beware of these so-called free gifts.

Most common among these schemes is the "limited time" offer on items such as small appliances, clothing or electronics. The giveaway is most frequently proposed by phone or email and emphasizes that the item or items are absolutely free; all that is needed is payment of a small shipping and handling charge. Another example: offers that promote "free" vacations — that require a "small" booking fee.

Quite often, these free gifts are fraudulent.

The true purpose is for the con to go on a phishing expedition — collecting personal data, including additional contact information and credit card account information. Often, the data is then sold to other criminals to exploit.

In some cases, the vacation scams take the form of high-pressure timeshare sales pitches. Does this sound familiar? Enjoy a three-day, two-night luxury accommodation in exchange for listening to a presentation. (Note: I took the bait one time and traveled to a vacation site in Virginia. Sales associates there emphasized that we weren't at a high-pressure event, but it ended up lasting six hours.)

There are ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a scam or sales pressure tactics. First, beware of any offer that appears too good to be true. Most legitimate companies run sales, but if a deal is hard to believe, you need to take a second look. Real companies must make a profit to survive. That simply cannot happen if they sell products or services below cost or give them away.

Second, research the offer before agreeing to anything. This tip should apply to all significant purchases and to any so-called deals. Check with the BBB and the Massachusetts Consumer Protection office to see if there are any complaints against the company.

Next, look into the company offering the deal and verify that it is a legitimate offer. Con artists are excellent impostors. Some of the best scams today on the internet are phony websites that appear to be the real McCoy. Verify offers by contacting the company involved. Correct contact information for a company can be found using a web search by entering the name of the company on the search or URL line of your browser. The search results will lead you to an authentic website and from there you can use contact information to verify the offer.

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You should use your credit card when making a questionable purchase. Credit card transactions are traceable. Consumers can dispute and avoid fraudulent charges. Credit card purchases also provide verifiable records of payment should the vendor claim that you never paid for the purchase.

Never make payment using gift cards such as iTunes or generic cash cards. A request for this form of payment is a virtual guarantee that a scam is in progress.

Finally, beware of any vendor requests for personal information such as a Social Security number, driver's license, birthdates, family names or other identifying details. These pieces of data are not necessary to buy something and, once again, are often indicators that fraudsters are at work.

Local alert

Many people are receiving robocalls that claim their credit cards were charged for purchases made on Amazon. The call provides a callback phone number for obtaining a refund. If you call it, the con artist on the other end of the line will attempt to gain access to your computer or collect credit card details (number, expiration date, security code).

Hang up the phone! Do not call back.

Critically, do not provide any information or provide access to your computer.

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