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by Abigail Van Buren

Guard Against Phone Crime by Observing Basic Rules

DEAR ABBY: Five years ago, my husband began a new career in the security business, working for a reputable company. Unfortunately, he discovered that not all security companies are reputable.

One day he came home with a frightening story. He had an emergency appointment to talk with an elderly couple in an affluent neighborhood about installing a security system. When he walked through their door, he found the house ransacked, furniture overturned and what looked like blood stains everywhere. The woman told him that they had been robbed the night before, and her husband had been hospitalized overnight after trying to protect her and their home.

That tragedy might have been prevented had she not told the man posing as a telemarketer two days earlier that she was interested in a "great security system deal." Violent thieves were, as they say in the business, "prequalifying" this couple for a crime.

Please don't tell anyone anything about yourself over the phone. If you're interested in a product or service, get recommendations from friends and neighbors, or get a company's name and telephone number from the yellow pages -- and make the calls yourself. This advice is never a foolproof guarantee, but at least you're the one in control.

Thank you, Abby, for your wonderful column. I hope that with all of your past letters plus this one, the lives and property of your readers will be safeguarded. -- MARY IN COVENTRY, CONN.

DEAR MARY: What a sobering warning. Because it can be difficult to distinguish between a legitimate telemarketing call and one that is not, I'm suggesting some basic rules to follow:

1. Never disclose your credit card number, bank account number or address to a stranger on the telephone.

2. Suspect anyone who tries to sell you something unseen or asks you for money in advance.

3. Remember: In order to get a "free prize," you shouldn't have to pay for anything.

4. Don't be rushed into a purchase or donation. Reputable charities and businesses are willing to mail you written material describing their programs and products. They will also give you time to think it over.

5. Pay by check or money order only -- never cash. Never allow anyone to come to your home to pick up the payment or donation.

6. Call the Better Business Bureau or your state's attorney general if a telemarketer uses pressure tactics such as intimidation, threats or repeated harassing calls.

DEAR ABBY: I disagree with your advice that "Fed Up in Milwaukee" (the woman who received only three responses to 45 invitations) should call everyone she invited and ask whether or not they plan to attend.

Abby, why is it her responsibility to track down all those ill-mannered people who are too lazy to pick up the phone?

I have a suggestion for "Fed Up": Call the three people who did respond and cancel the party, with apologies. Then plan something nice for you and your husband for that date: a play, a special dinner, anything so you are not at home that evening. Wait for the surprised reactions of those who didn't respond but showed up at your house expecting a party.

I did this once. After that, those who were invited to my home and wanted to come let me know in advance, just as my invitation requested. -- SENIOR IN SAN CLEMENTE, CALIF.

DEAR SENIOR: Although not everyone would be comfortable following your suggestion, it shows creativity plus a healthy dose of "chutzpah," and teaches a valuable lesson.

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