Beware of Hurricane Harvey scams

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It's late summer, kids are headed back to school, and the scammers are back (not that they ever left).

Alerts have been posted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), AARP Fraud Watch, the Better Business Bureau and others for three major scams that have appeared nationwide related to Hurricane Harvey, Publisher's Clearing House (PCH) and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Let's start with the current disaster, Hurricane Harvey. Whenever a major natural or man-made disaster hits, so do the con artists. Within hours of our Gulf Coast being hit by a hurricane, phone calls were being received and emails logged asking for donations to help the victims of the storm. Some of the scams claim to be new efforts to help while others are imposters claiming to be organizations such as the American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries, or the Salvation Army.

The attempts are emotion-laden and frequently target senior citizens, though everyone is a potential victim.

If you receive a direct contact, report it to one of the organizations identified later in this be skeptical. Aid organizations and charities do not make random calls; they communicate with known contributors and use the media to make wide ranging appeals. If you receive a call or email, report it as suggested later in this article.

Most of us have seen the commercials for Publishers Clearing House that show someone being surprised at their door by balloon-carrying representatives bearing large checks for millions of dollars. The scam involves a phone call or email announcing that you are the winner of one of the "big" prizes awarded by PCH. In the process of collecting your winnings, you are told that you must first pay a processing fee and taxes.

Any time you are told to pay any money in order to collect a prize you are being scammed. PCH does not notify winners in advance! PCH requires that you enter the sweepstakes in order to win. If you did not enter the sweepstakes, you cannot win! When asked for payment scammers will request either a money order transfer or the use of over-the-counter gift cards. PCH is a legitimate company but does not engage in these practices. As with the "disaster scam" identified above, follow the suggestions identified in this alert. Also, report the scam to PCH by going online to info.pch.com and click on the Fraud Protection icon.

The third alert involves Make-A-Wish foundation scamming. This is quite similar to the PCH scam. You are notified by mail, telephone or email that you have won the Make-A-Wish Foundation Sweepstakes. Often the scammer will identify himself or herself as an official in the federal government. The reality here is that the foundation does not conduct sweepstakes. This is clearly a scam. Immediately report this to FraudAlerts@wish.org, or at (800) 722-9474.

As I have suggested in previous articles, we are all potential targets for con artists. Our best protection is continuous education. Subscribe to fraud alerts provided by organizations such as AARP, the Better Business Bureau, and fraud.org, or through federal government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In Vermont, you can also register for alerts at uvm.edu/comsumer.

If you are targeted in a scam attempt, report it. Collect as much information - names, companies, phone numbers, email addresses - as well as the date and time of the attempted scam. Report it to any of the following: Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP or ftc.gov/complaint, your state attorney general's office of consumer affairs, the AARP Fraud Watch Network at (877) 908-3360 and local law enforcement.

Additional questions or concerns? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

AARP is seeking fraud fighters of all ages. Contact the AARP Massachusetts office at (866) 448-3621, AARP New Hampshire office at (866) 542-8168, AARP New York office at (866) 227-7442, or AARP Vermont office at (866) 227-7451.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

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