Saturday, November 2, 2013

Beware the Holiday Temptation!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Here in Boston, we’re celebrating the Red Sox today. In other news, I’m still deciding what to do with all the post-celebration leftover Halloween candy (toss it?) and contemplating the celebration of Thanksgiving, which is astonishingly imminent.
But our dear Terry Ambrose (a true friend of the Reds!) is already (sigh) focusing on the celebration of another holiday. The name of which I will not say, because I cannot even bear how unprepared I am.
But Terry is here to protect us.

                 Beware the Snake Oil Salesman
                                  By Terry Ambrose
It’s just way too early to be thinking about the holidays, right? I guess not. Already I’ve seen Christmas ads, movies, decorations and more. Sheesh. You’d think the happiest time of the year was right around the corner—oh wait, it is. In fact, just last week (yes, before Halloween) I saw a woman mailing gifts to her brother and sister—a picture of an antique car for him, a cushy lap robe for her. What was really interesting to me was that the woman told the postmaster that her sister is a nun in an area where there are no medical services and so she, who just happens to have nursing training, doubles as the area doctor. Talk about altruistic. That kind of dedication—working tirelessly for years with no monetary compensation—seems like it’s way above my pay grade. I admit it—money matters. While I’ve never “hit the big time,” I feel like I work hard for every dollar I bring in. You probably do, too. And that makes being able to do something nice for others at this time of year a bit more special.
Oddly enough, the holidays not only bring out the best in people, but the worst. Just when we should be filled with joy at being able to give to others, along comes the guy I’ll call the Snake Oil Salesman. We get this guy’s emails every day. We see his websites—and they’re perfect replicas of the real thing.
The Snake Oil Salesman is the scammer who makes it difficult to know whether we’re buying real Swarovski crystal or a cheap Chinese imitation. Worse than that, he’s the guy who makes us wonder if we’re giving to a charitable cause or a personal one. As a former identity theft victim and someone who writes about scams and cons in fiction and real life, I tend to be especially cynical of online solicitations, special offers in the mail, or telemarketers. So, with the holidays approaching, my cynic meter crawls into the red because I know that the scammers and con artists will be working overtime to ensure that they have a happy holiday season—at our expense.
I can almost hear the sounds of the season: bells ringing, songs about merry times—and my telephone jangling away with the next guy wanting to sell me something I can’t live without. Or maybe he’s just trying to get me to give to a cause I’ve never heard of before. 
Charitable donation requests are already decorating mailboxes and email accounts, and soon people dressed in red will stand outside of malls and grocery stores ringing bells. Studies show that half of charitable donations are made between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. What many people don’t realize is that, depending upon which charity you give to, those charitable contributions may not make it to the intended recipient. Instead, they might be going to a Snake Oil Salesman.
Did you know that within hours of the Boston Marathon explosion there were websites, both legitimate and fraudulent, set up to solicit donations? The same thing happens during the holidays. So what’s a “good” person to do to avoid lining the pockets of a “bad” person? Here are three simple suggestions to help avoid being taken by “that guy.”
              Check out businesses and charities with the Better Business Bureau at
              Online scammers create great fakes websites and emails. Don’t be fooled by good artwork, perfect logos or a slick website. The good scammers can perfectly duplicate a website or email.
              Never succumb to pressure. Pressure is the con man’s friend. It’s certainly not mine, nor is it yours. I’ve come to the opinion that if someone thinks they need to force me into a quick decision, the safest thing to do is walk away. 
Do you have examples of when you have—or just missed—falling for the Snake Oil Salesman? Do you have special tips to pass on to others? 

HANK:  I bet I’ve missed real emails—because the ones that look too fishy, I simply delete. So good question, Terry!  Have you ever gotten ripped off. Reds? Or—almost? (And Terry, what happened to you?) 

“Kauai Temptations” is Terry’s new McKenna Mystery and it’s about what happens when the search for an identity thief takes a wrong turn. Wilson McKenna’s bank tells him he’s written $4,000 in bad checks on an island he’s never been to. That makes him one unhappy haole. Things get worse when he’s nearly arrested for impersonating himself and the woman who trashed his credit turns up dead. Before he knows it, McKenna’s up to his ‘umi’umi in hot lava.
Find “Kauai Temptations” on or learn more about it at


  1. This is one of the things that really “pushes my buttons” . . . these Snake Oil Salesmen should be locked up some place where they’ll never again be able to have access to the Internet. Fortunately, we have not fallen into the multitude of traps these fakers perpetrate, but it’s not for lack of trying on their part. Their garbage arrives in our email several times a day, every day.

    What has saved us is that my cynical-about-these-things policeman-husband [now retired] can invariably spot the phony Snake Oil Salesmen and we have had a hard and fast rule about charity. Without exception, we never give to over-the-telephone solicitations, we dump all those phony emails [without visiting their oh-so-slick websites], and we toss everything that comes in the snail mail except the one for the local volunteer fire department/EMS squad. We only give to organizations or programs that we know to be legitimate, so we have been fortunate enough to have avoided being scammed by these lowlife types and we are able to ensure that our donation is truly going to help those in need.

  2. A very informative piece, Terry. Your knowledge is impressive. More people need to know of your efforts. For a small monthly fee, I could get your message out to millions of American readers -- readers just waiting to her about your book. I'll call you during dinner to discuss.

    :) Good luck, Terry. Sounds like a great mystery>

  3. I like to keep my charitable giving close to home. There are several local organizations that feed the hungry, help the disadvantaged, and rescue animals in my community. I know the folks who run them and the fruits of their labors arerceadily visible.
    While local groups are not immune from difficulties, they are fewacnd far between, because the people who fund the groups are looking over their shoulders.
    Scammers are evil, but are probably z downside of free speech. Some are so obvious that it's hard to beleive anyone falls for their nonsense.

  4. Hey Joan, isn't it a sad fact of life that we have to act that way? It's so annoying. Congrats, Jack! As commenter #2, you've won a million dollars. All I need is your social security number, date of birth, and mother's maiden name. We can talk during the dinner call!
    Hank, I lost my identity when we were on vacation in Hawaii and a batch of our newly ordered checks were stolen from our held mail at the post office. Fortunately, we got home and discovered the theft a couple of days later…after they'd written thousands of dollars in bad checks.
    And, for anyone who reads Kauai Temptations, here's tidbit…the call about the stereo system that my protagonist receives is real… :D

  5. Great post, Terry, and timely here, too. My hubby cannot be trusted to answer the phone, because he has such a big heart that all a con man has to do is say "help underprivileged kids" and he's reaching for his checkbook. Someone showed up at my door just yesterday telling me dear hubs pledged to give their cause quite a chunk of money over the phone. My journalism days have made me a bit cynical, so I sent the man on his way with a promise to mail in a donation if the organization checks out.

    I remember those fake Twitter donation accounts that went up right after the tragedy in Boston. Still makes me a little queasy to think people can be so wretched.

  6. Hey LynDee, aren't you southern women just the strong ones? I fear the scammer who tries to take advantage of you. Thanks for dropping in!

  7. HOw about the phone calls that being "Attention senior citizens..." that are recordings? WHO listens to those? I'm so sad that people are frightened by them..

    The other day I answered the phone..there was the pause that meant it was a recording, but still I listened,..and it was brilliant. It picked up as if we'd been talking..."oh, thanks, listen, so, anyway, your account agent tells me..." Grrr.

  8. I'm a pretty stubborn person, and I never give in to anyone who gets pushy about trying to sell me something or wants me to donate to an organization. It MUST be something with which I have personal experience.The organization closest to my heart is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the majority of my charitable donations goes to them. One of my sisters is gravely disabled from MS and has received numerous benefits from them over the years.

    A long time ago a salesman from my life insurance company hung up on me because I repeatedly refused to change my payment method! He wanted me to switch from monthly payments to quarterly, which would have resulted in a yearly increase of $8. Not a lot of money, but it's MY money, and monthly payments work out very nicely for me. That was over thirty years ago and they have never called me again. (They must have a black mark next to my name:-)

    My captcha looks, um, obscene. I may request a different one:-)

  9. Hank, how about the emails that begin, "This is not spam!"…seriously? Is that supposed to be marketing brilliance?

    Deb, that's pretty sad that he would have wanted you to do something that would cost you MORE money. I'd want to put a black mark on HIS record! And darn, I never get the obscene captca's. That's not fair!

  10. I've foiled several toner scams at three different employers. First they call and ask for the brand and model of your copier. Oh so polite and official sounding, and really, it's harmless, right? A few days later they call back and introduce themselves as your "new rep," apologizing for how bad the old one was, and "I see we have a toner order from, oh, wow, it's been six months, I'm so sorry that last rep was so bad, let me just go ahead and fix that for you. Can I send you this toner you ordered?" And you get the toner, along with a bill for 10 times the actual cost, but hey, you "ordered" it.

    The scams where you hand out tons of money and get nothing in return are the worst, but I also hate the ones where they knowingly provide an inferior product. Guys knock on our door offering boxed frozen steaks and seafood for a discount price. There's always a great explanation for why it's so cheap - either the person who ordered it provided a bad address and doesn't actually live there, or they changed their mind, or, my favorite, the truck broke down and they need to sell all this stuff before it thaws and goes bad. I've always said no, but they struck when my mom was home alone one day. We still have mushy "steaks" in the freezer that she paid $250 for.

  11. Hi Sandi, thanks for stopping by and telling you story. I think it's really terrible how willing these guys are to take advantage of anyone they can. It's a sad fact of life. I hope your mom is more aware now!

  12. Thanks for the info Terry! You and Jack should go into business together. Your story about checks stolen from the PO is maddening! There are so many ways to get scammed, it makes you want to throw up your hands.

    We never agree to give something over the phone and that saves some hassle...

  13. Someone took the information off a legitimate check I wrote at a store. I don't write that many checks these days; fewer now! Anyway I happened to check my bank account online and saw about nine checks written in one day in another state. They totaled almost a thousand dollars. My bank got my funds back. I had to close that account and open a new one. Poor Walmart lost the most, followed by Best Buy. Target was hit for $160. Guess who hounded me for months for their $160? Target sicced three different bill collectors on me over the months. I had explained the situation, sent them a copy of a letter from my bank's fraud department absolving me of any blame, and nothing would get them off my back except getting a notarized affidavit from my bank stating I did not defraud Target. I felt like I'd already been put to a lot of trouble. Damned if I was going to go get an affidavit for those jackasses! I wrote a letter to the president of Target and told him of my experience and why I would not be shopping there anymore. Didn't hear back from him so I guess he doesn't care.

  14. Deb, there's a reason why the life insurance guy never called back: lifetime commissions, as long as you keep paying premiums. I was an insurance agent from 1978 to 1987, and I still, to this day, get commissions from policies I sold in the early 80's, even though my license was never renewed after the mid-90's. They can sell you something and then leave the business forever (as I did, but I kept in touch with my clients for a long, long time afterwards, in case they needed information).

    My husband is a softie, too, LynDee. He falls for those "lifetime" light bulb scams every single time--any sob story turns him into mush willing to hand over the family coffers. I refuse to donate money over the phone any more, including to the "State Troopers" or local cops who profess to be collecting money to take "poor" kids to the circus or some such. Give me a break.

    The problem is that scammers are getting so creative, and they have so much new techie tools to scam with. Gives you a headache just trying to keep up, doesn't it?

    Terry, Kauai is one of my three favorite places ever. Really look forward to reading this one!

  15. Hi Terry! Always great to see you here!

    Jack, you crack me up! $2M to you, indeed:-)

    Joan, my hubby is not only a former cop but now works in IT, so we are pretty savvy on scams. Most of these emails don't even make it through our spam filters and we have ad-blocks on everything.

    That doesn't stop people from coming to you door, however, and the last few months we've had this woman who (supposedly) owns a roofing company ring our doorbell over and over again. At one point she got one of her guys up on our roof without our permission. She keeps telling us they'll get our insurance company to replace our roof and they'll even cover the cost of the deductible. Sounds great, but I'd never do business with anyone that pushy. Hubby has threatened to file trespass charges against her if she shows up again.

    As for charities, the only big one we give to is Doctors without Borders. Otherwise, we try to give locally. There are lots of organizations that give us the opportunity to see where our money is going in the community.

  16. Lucy, I'm still waiting for Jack's info. Once he gives me all that financial info, he'll get just what he deserves! :-)
    You'd think no one would fall for these things anymore, but these guys are still in business.

    And Pat, we went through much the same thing when our checks were stolen. The difference is that my check thief had better taste than your check thief. So there! Yeah, mine bought some high-end stuff including a fancy racing bicycle! Ha!

    I'm hoping Karen will share the info on the lifetime lightbulbs. I really could use some of those…please, please…i never want to change lightbulbs again! And enjoy the virtual trip to Kauai!

    I think your hubby has the right idea about the roofer, Deb. Maybe the next time she shows up, you could simply say, "You do know I kill people for a living, right?"

  17. Hey all--back from my library speech--and happy to see you are all getting along nicely.

    Here's how I handle some of those calls:
    GUY: Hello, I'm calling about--
    HANK: I'm so sorry to interrupt, but whatever you're selling or collecting for I'm going to say no. I know its your job to convince me, but there's no way on the planet I will ever say anything but no.
    So count your blessings that I'm not wasting your time. Okay? Bye.
    GUY: But really we can--
    HANK: I don't want to be rude,but I'm going to hang up now. And by the way, take me off your list.

    And then I hang up.

    I feel guilty, because its so rude. But they were rude first!

  18. Terry! So great to see you here!

    I have to say getting rid of our land line stopped a lot of the awful sales calls, but they still come up on the cell once in a while. Luckily, they're easier to dodge that way....

  19. "no call" lists seem not to work well anymore, because of all the exemptions and the robo-calls using info from the credit bureaus. I have long distrusted them, and when I was dealing with identity fraud, they were far more interested in selling "protection" than in correcting the erroneous claims. I just saw a piece on the uncharitable doings at Goodwill . . . who can one trust?
    Hank, it seems a shame to throw away the candy, waste not, want not . . . even though it's not quite food actually. I'll bet your library would find use for it . . . ours will be putting out treats on Veterans' Day.

  20. storytellermary! Shame on you…chocolate is one of the four basic food groups. Isn't it? But if Hank's not using chocolate candy, well, then, I agree with you.

    Hi Susan! Nice to see you, too. Okay, gang, here's what may be the best way I've ever heard of how to handle the telemarketers. It come from my mother and goes like this.

    Mom: "Hello?"
    Caller: "I'd like to talk to you about…"
    Mom: "Oh, that's very interesting. Let me go get a pencil."
    She'd then put the phone down and walk away. Odd, they never hung on very long…

    By the way, this post has been way too much fun, so I'm going to use a few snippets in the Scam Talk part of my newsletter that goes out tomorrow. If you want to see it, go to The Snitch tomorrow (Sunday).

  21. And, Terry, you know this one:

    YOU: Oh, thank you so much for calling, I'd love to chat about his. May I call you back?
    TELEMARKETER (all happy): Sure.
    YOU: Okay, whats your number ? And what time do you have dinner? Because that's when I'll call you!

  22. Oh,Storyteller MAry, I'd never TOSS it, literally...Maybe i'll TOSS it into the ..freezer? Or, old standby--take it to work. :-) xoox

  23. Thanks goodness, Hank, you had me a little worried for a minute with that whole throwing away candy thing. I do like the idea of calling the telemarketers at home during dinner…adds a nice twist to it.

  24. I detest telemarketer's I know the employees are trying to make a living, but not off of me

    Robocalls are worse, you can't tell them to take you off their list

    Hank - I don't think that is rude at all...They are calling your personal phone, you did not ask them to call, nor did you give them your phone # so they should be prepared for the Ire they raise in people -

    That was very polite compared to what I have said to some TM's in the past (repeat ones)

    I take offense when companies and scammers think they have the right to harass me by calling my "personal" phone

    I think all companies who offer phone service (mine is through my cable company) should allow their customers to block as many phone #'s that they want.

    My cable company only allows me to block 10 phone #'s
    My list is full so I can't block anymore TM's grrrrrrrrrrrrrr

  25. Someone mentioned Identity Theft

    We have had our Credit card # stolen twice..first time it was taken by a restaurant or hotel when we were traveling to or from NY for my Dad's funeral.

    Got home and went to grocery, swiped my CC and it didn't go through, tried again, nope - clerk tried manually putting it in - nothing. So I used by back up card and went home and called CC company to see what was wrong with my card

    They told me I was over my limit - I said I think NOT, we'd charged 2 nights in a hotel and gas for the trip and a few meals, that didn't come to $20,000.00

    So they immediately cancelled the card and sent me a new one

    Someone had purchased over $20,000.00 worth of furniture and electronics in PA

    I live in TN - that should have rung bells with the CC company, especially since the card was swiped in the store, not an online purchase

    Not many people travel 450 miles to buy furniture

    When Fraud Dept called me next day they told me it was most likely stolen by a CC fraud ring - they get employees who are wanting extra money to steal your CC#, name, whether is is visa or mastercard..

    He said they carry these tiny swipers in their apron (some servers in restaurants) or have them hidden by cash register - one swipe and it copies all the info on your card.

    That person then sends the info electronically to the fraud ring who makes up a credit card to look just like yours......The person who swiped your card gets paid X amount of $$ per card they swipe and send to the fraud ring.

    Then they sent me pages of paperwork to fill out so they could legally pursue the person and/or company who stole our info

    Had it stolen again last year, someone used it to buy things online adding up to about $1,000.00, the CC company called me on that one and I said NO not me; so they denied the charge, cancelled my card, Again, and sent new card with new #

    I rarely use my checkbook as a friend had someone get a hold of her checks and wrote about 10 checks in one day at different stores (they did catch the guy)

    So I use my CC for 99.9 % of purchases and pay it off at end of the month

    I don't know which is safer to use, checks or CC, at least with my CC company they act immediately and we are not responsible

    There are so many evil people out there :(

    my rants for the day

    Wishing everyone a great evening

  26. Okay, MAr, thanks!

    And wow--what a story. Sigh. DEFINITELY credit cards are safer! (And credit cards safer than debit cards. You know that, right?)

    What a fascinating day on Jungle Red! xo

  27. Hi Mar, you've really been through the ringer with identity theft. I've only been the victim once (that was more than enough for me!). Hank is right, however, credit cards are definitely safer for a couple of reasons that I won't go into here.

    However, anyone who's had their identity stolen twice definitely deserves a break. So, I'm going to gift you a digital copy of Kauai Temptations. You can contact me through the form on my website at or find me on Facebook and message me. And no, this is not a scam and there's no Snake Oil being sold. Just a freebie for having a great story. I look forward to hearing from you.

  28. The scams run all year, of course, but as Terry points out, they get heaviest at Christmas time. But this is nothing new; it's only been going on for about 5,000 years. The Internet is just a new means of exercising an ancient profession!

    Some people just don't have a lot of skills; or a lot of education; or the capacity to fit into "normal"; or social ethics or morality that extend beyond very limited boundaries. We will find more and more of these as we marginalize physical labor, export jobs abroad and increasingly render the possibilities for many to earn a decent living by "honest labor" less and less attractive or even possible while rewarding those who profit from massive banking, "investment" and other financial scams. What lesson does that teach?

    I have not received an unwanted email solicitation in at least 5 years. MS-Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird and Cloudmark ( [I don't work for them except I tell all my friends about them] have eliminated this for me. Cloudmark, by the way, cut my spam of 30+ emails per day to under 5 per month in a very short time (it needs to learn what you don't want).

    If your phone is still ringing with unsolicited calls of any kind, register with the National Do Not Call Registry ( It won't end all calls, but withing the thirty days it needs to "take effect", my calls went down from 10+ per day to 2-3 per month. Whenever I have mentioned to an unwanted caller that I am registered there, I've never heard from them again. (Yes, folks, there ARE good reasons to have government involved in these issues! Fines could be levied.)

    Like all of you, we get lots of holiday charity appeals, and like S.E. Warwick, many are close to home. But we live in Manhattan, NYC! And we haven't been here long, so we don't her/his feel for who's honest. So we turn to Charity Navigator ( and review their records. And we look at a charity's IRS filings; these most often demonstrate a fairly accurate picture of how much of the donated funds actually go to charitable work.

    If you walk the streets of your town -- even Midtown Manhattan -- you can actually talk to people asking for money. Why, in fact, would you prefer to give to fairly impersonal organizations than directly to people that you know need the help? Well, one reason is that so many of us don't want to know the people who need help. And people lie. But, a direct look, a smile, 30 seconds of conversation, even if it don't fill the stomach, it feeds the soul: somebody saw me today.

    "Seeing" people is often the greatest gift you can give them (although they would still like a buck to eat!)But no matter if you won't drop that buck; see me, squatting there asking for a handout, as a person like you, and that's a boost.

    If you go to church/synagogue/temple/mosque, your religious leader will (usually) know who most needs charity.

    If you have kids in school, you'll know what kids come to and leave school hungry.

    There's no shame (and little virtue) in driving up to a darkened house in the dead of night and leaving a box of non-perishable foods. Although direct, personal charity has somehow gotten a bad rap in our current world of "universal concern", it's really been a major part of not only American concern for neighbours but of our entire heritage.

    Wherever we came from, we all came from folks who took care of their own.

    So, what I am suggesting is that "charity" really does begin at home (or in your block or neighbourhood).
    Or, if that's not enough for you, there are ways to check out the appeals and even to cut them off, and Terry should have told you about those, at least.

  29. Hank you are so polite. I guess I am rude. I just hang up. I give to school libraries. That's it.

    Locally—I give used mobility equipment to the MDA and ALS local loaner programs. The company where I get my mobility equipment donates their precious time, equipment, and supplies to refurbishing it.

    That way people who might qualify for new equipment will have a good power wheelchair to use while waiting for the Medicare/private insurance process that can take a year or more to complete.

    My current rehab chair took 2 years to get, because I was scammed by a provider who took the money from Medicare, my secondary, and tertiary insurance companies, but never delivered the chair. He claimed he did, and I had to prove I never received it.

    Seriously. A person could die first.

  30. Anonymous, the problem with restricting your giving to individuals is that many get overlooked. Favoritism has a tendency to take over. Giving tends to be skewed, leaving the most needy without. People in need should not be left to rely on charity, but charities can be very helpful to individuals.

  31. At least you can hang up on phone call scammers. It's harder when someone comes to your door. A sad-looking woman in her 40s came to our house one evening saying she and her daughter were homeless and hungry and willing to do chores. I turned her away, felt guilty, and then checked the neighborhood website and found she'd been working our area for a month and several residents had given her money and two had driven her to the shelter.

  32. Hi Reine, I try to do what Hank does just to make myself feel less like them, but if they persist after a warning or two, they get dial tone.
    Caroline, that's a pretty sad case. I'd probably do the same thing you've done because I'd be concerned about what would happen once they were in my house. Hopefully, she can find some sort of help. Thanks for stopping by!

    And thank you Reds for having me as a guest. As always, this is a fun place to hang out!

  33. I'm late, but I wanted to weigh in on this topic too. I hate those robo calls. Worse, if you decide to screen your calls and don't pick up, they keep calling back, sometimes hourly. It feels like harassment!

  34. I'm even later weighing in, but I happen to be VERY picky about where I donate money, because money is VERY tight for me (recession hits clients, clients stop paying lawyers, internet causes what used to be paid to freelancers to vanish, etc.-- story of our times).

    So I CHOOSE to give to the person in the grocery line behind me who is short of change, to the pet charity that is reliable and is pulling dogs off death row, and I donate boxes of no-longer-needed "feminine supplies" along with hotel soaps and shampoos, etc., to the local women's shelter (or to a homeless shelter).

    NOBODY who I do not already know, who asks me for money via the phone, via an e-mail, via a solicitation letter (hey, if you have money for postage and sheets of un-needed return address labels, you don't need my donaation!) gets anything from me. EVER.

    By the way, if someone is on food stamps (SNAP)-- which our senators and representatives, secure in their own large salaries, benefits, and golden parachutes, have seen fit to cut back on of late-- these benefits cannot be used for soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toilet paper, or tampons, so THAT's what I'm going to throw into those barrels at the grocery store.

    When I saw the Katrina survivors on TV, toting their few supplies and salvaged belongs around in plastic garbage bags, I rounded up all the tote bags I'd been given at various writers conventions and dropped them off at the local collection point.

    My charities of choice. Nobody else, except family and friends (charity begins at home).