If history is a guide, we are likely to see a spike in various kinds of fraud schemes as the stock market rises and real estate values continue to climb. During boom times, people are prone to take risks, putting money in the next big stock or seeking ways to cash in on real estate speculation. When times are good, people tend to be more willing to use their money to make more.
This week, Utah’s consumer protection agency warned citizens to exercise caution. The latest alert specifically talks about telemarketing fraud, made easier by technology used to flood consumers with a plague of automated “robocalls” in which a prerecorded voice dangles a pitch for an investment plan, a great deal on a vacation or a way to bring down household debt. The Federal Communications Commission says Americans last year received more than 29 billion unwanted prerecorded calls.
Federal regulations permit use of prerecorded calls for certain legitimate purposes — to conduct a poll, alert a passenger of a change in an airline schedule or remind people of a doctor's appointment. They do not allow for open solicitation, but it happens anyway, en masse, due to fraudsters' ability to employ technology that churns out calls often using local area codes to tempt the receiver to click the answer button.
Fraud of various sorts is a problem nationwide, but Utah has been particularly vulnerable due to a close-knit culture that encourages trust. Cases of “affinity fraud” regularly claim victims who give up money to someone they see as trustworthy, often as a result of social ties or common church membership. Utah unfortunately ranks among the top three states in the nation for fraud per capita, and it's in the top five for the number of indictments and prosecutions. In reaction to those numbers, regulators and law enforcement agencies have stepped up local preventive and educational programs.
The state created the nation’s first-ever White Collar Crime Registry as a tool for prospective investors. State and local agencies have also created the Financial Fraud Institute, which has been staging panel discussions to inform and educate consumers about the ins and outs of affinity fraud. In the case of telemarketing fraud, the state is encouraging people simply to not answer calls from suspicious numbers. Robocallers will almost never leave voice messages.
But the sheer number of calls consumers receive is itself disturbing. Shady telemarketers have been able to get around the rules and bypass the constraints of the federal Do Not Call registry by operating overseas, outside the government’s jurisdiction. Technology is available to block automated calling, but as of yet, few cellphone service providers have chosen to put it to work, according to consumer advocates.
Efforts to shield consumers from fraudulent solicitation are important, but avoiding victimization by a random voice over the phone or an acquaintance over the backyard fence ultimately must also be the responsibility of individual consumers.