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by Abigail Van Buren

Victim of Phone Fraud Is Fearful of Telling Husband

DEAR ABBY: I have been married 54 years, and this is the first time I have kept a secret from my husband. If I were to tell him, I'm afraid it would kill him or my marriage. Neither of us is in good enough health to work. We are both in our 70s, and he thinks we have enough money to carry us through the rest of our lives.

It began with mail saying, "You're a winner!" and my answering the mail. Next came phone calls, and instead of hanging up, I'd talk to whoever it was. I began sending them money and, of course, I'd get a two-bit gift for a few dollars. This got me started. It kept getting worse until I was on every sucker list in the country. It's like I have a gambling disease.

I have an ulcer and shingles from worry and don't know where to turn. All our money (and I mean all) is gone. I'm in debt and can't even pay our bills. We get $900 a month from Social Security, which doesn't go very far. There's no other income.

If I could afford a lawyer and keep my husband from finding out, I'd try getting some of my money back. The only thing I'm sure of now is that no one can get any more money out of me, as there is no more to get.

When I tell them on the phone that I'm broke, they tell me I'm not! I hang up, and they call back and chew me out for hanging up on them. Some are very rude.

I know there is nothing you can do to help me, but just being able to confide in someone helps a little. After rereading this, I'm sitting here shaking. I know I have to handle this problem myself in some way, but I don't know how.

Thank you, Abby, for being here and being someone with whom I can share this heavy burden. -- LOST IN THE DESERT

DEAR LOST: Gather your courage and tell your husband what has happened. Two heads are better than one in a crisis, and you must support each other.

Although most telemarketing calls are legitimate, fraudulent telemarketers often target older people, and it is estimated that their activities cost Americans $40 billion a year. Because this problem has become so widespread, a nationwide effort was begun several years ago to crack down on telemarketing fraud.

In order to create more effective anti-fraud messages, the National Consumers League is conducting a special project, funded by American Express, to study why older people are susceptible to telemarketing fraud. They have discovered that many victims do not consider illegal telemarketers criminals; they think they are just pushy salespeople trying to make a living, and are unaware that the companies they work for are fraudulent. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A new public education campaign will be launched this month to publicize the message that "illegal telemarketers are crooks" with the goal of encouraging consumers to hang up and report them.

I advise you to file a complaint with the National Consumer Fraud Information Center, P.O. Box 65868, Washington, D.C. 20035. Your complaint will be forwarded to law enforcement authorities, and those who have been victimized and need help will be referred to the appropriate agency for assistance. You should also contact your state's attorney general, whose office is in the state capital.

Although it may be too late to get your money back, dear lady, you have done a great service to other seniors by sharing your experience with them.

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