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Don’t hesitate to hang up on telemarketers

Here’s some plain-and-simple advice for seniors and other consumers to consider when they pick up the phone and hear a stranger on the line.

Ask yourself first, “Should this company even be calling me?”

It’s an odd thought. But maybe it’s a good, quick reality check for a time when some of us might be sitting at home alone and wouldn’t mind talking to any friendly voice on the phone.

Really, if you’ve never done business with the company, why are they calling?

By staying on the phone, could you be hooked to a potential scam or a way to lose money?

It’s perfectly fine to just hang up.

“We want consumers to hang up if they think something is wrong,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. “Money lost to scammers is gone for good.”

The Consumer Federation of America conducted a survey recently regarding those telemarketing calls, as one step to preventing fraud and abusive calls. The conclusion: Plenty of consumers can easily be confused by the details of the “Do Not Call” rules.

I’ve heard some unsettling stories lately regarding sketchy phone calls, too.

Recently, a reader told me about an elderly relative who eagerly answers the phone when strangers call and keeps sending money to cover some fee or tax connected to the latest so-called lottery prize. No prize, of course, ever arrives.

Another woman told me about an elderly parent of one of her friends. The dad seemed to talk with one caller a little too long for his daughter’s comfort. Who was it? Some financial planner, the Dad said. But when the daughter tried to track down the number, the number that appeared for the call ended up being connected to a random household, not a financial services outfit at all.

It’s essential to realize that caller ID or dialing star 69 for that “last call return” might not give you a legitimate answer as to who was on the other line. Scammers are savvy.

“They’re able to spoof their phone numbers,” Grant warned.

Some robocalls give you the wrong impression that a well-known company could be calling, too.

Seniors and others need to watch out for utility scams, too.

“Imposter telemarketer issues occur all too frequently,” said Michael Lynch, chief security officer for DTE Energy in Detroit.

Some scams, he said, involve a phone call where the con artist claims to be from the utility and offers a 20 percent discount if you pay your bill today. Just give me your credit card number now, the scammer might say.

Or someone shows up at the door, again claiming to be from the utility, and demanding that you hand over cash for your bill now to avoid having your service shut off immediately.

“We don’t take money in the field. We don’t go to a house asking for money ever,” Lynch said.

Scam artists often target elderly consumers and may spot a neat and tidy home with lawn ornaments or U.S. flags, as well as other signs that a senior lives there.

The spring is particularly a bad time when scam artists pretend to be utility workers to enter a home of an elderly person, Lynch said. One person distracts the homeowner; the other empties drawers of jewelry and cash in the back bedroom.

To be sure, many consumers may find it hard to tell whether a sales call is legitimate.

But Grant said too often, it’s more human nature to search for reasons why a special discount is really a great deal – not try to figure out why it’s a scam. Sometimes, people won’t even listen to the advice they receive when the consumer takes time to call a consumer hotline.

“People will argue with them when they’re calling to ask for advice because they really want it to be true,” she said.

Signing up for the “Do Not Call” list might help avoid some calls, but not all of them.

Some points to remember:

• If you put your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry, a telemarketer is allowed to call you if you’ve recently done business with them. But some consumers wrongly think no calls are allowed or that telemarketing calls would be allowed only in the late afternoon around dinner time.

• A robocall that uses a prerecorded message, instead of someone speaking live, can be used for sales calls but only can be made to your home phone or cellphone if you gave the telemarketer written permission to make such calls to you.

• Some consumers wrongly think that telemarketers could make prerecorded sales calls to you without written permission if you had bought something from them in the past.

“Legitimate companies usually follow the rules, but scammers don’t,” Grant said.

It may sound rude, but the best way to save money and avoid a scam may very well be to just hang up.