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Slam that telephone scam

A federal crackdown should help limit the reach of con artists dialing for your dollars. You can also take steps to protect yourself.

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Mike Havertz started his career with the FBI investigating drug trafficking and terrorism. Now he focuses on telemarketing fraud, which zeroes in on and victimizes a lot of seniors.

It's a $20 billion-a-year empire that has become increasingly sophisticated since Mr. Havertz went to work in 1993 with the FBI's Boiler Room Task Force in San Diego.

Shady businesses often promise prizes such as cars or jewelry to people willing to pay fictitious taxes or fees. Once the payments are made, the prizes either fail to show or are almost worthless. Many of these operations have moved to Canada after authorities pretty well shut them down in the US.

"Now it's investment schemes," says Havertz. These scams can involve stock offerings of bogus high-tech enterprises that pull in a minimum of $10,000 from each victim. They're so sophisticated that Havertz, investigative coordinator of the task force, says retirement-plan trustees have been duped into signing over control of those accounts to people who quickly looted them.

"They're good," Havertz says of today's telephone crooks.

A Georgia telemarketer was convicted late last year of ripping off $83,000 from an Iowa farm couple in a Japanese yen currency-trading swindle. The salesman was pulling in commissions of up to $25,000 weekly giving people the tried-but-true pitch that he'd turn their piles of money into mountains of cash within weeks. While the telemarketer faces up to 15 years in prison, the Federal Trade Commission has just issued its second warning against foreign-currency trading schemes.

Taping calls

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