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This Magazine Subscription Scam Targeting Over 150,000 Seniors Just Got Busted

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When a 69-year-old Texas woman received a call from an “attorney” letting her know she could get rid of $1,000 of magazine debt, she did a double-take. Before she could hang up, the man threatened legal action against her, then called back and threatened her again in a voicemail.

What this con artist didn’t know is that federal authorities were listening in, with the woman’s permission. It helped to bust the largest elder fraud case in U.S. history. For two decades, fraudsters conned more than 180,000 people — many of whom were seniors — out of more than $335 million.  

Why seniors? “Unfortunately, we live in a world where fraudsters are willing to take advantage of seniors, who are often trusting and polite,” said Minnesota U.S. District Attorney Erica MacDonald, whose office is prosecuting the case. “It’s my hope that this prosecution is a call for vigilance and caution.”

Magazine scams are nothing new. Even as the magazine industry continues to migrate to digital, some people prefer to flip through actual books. This can be especially true for seniors, who have maintained print subscriptions for most of their lives. It’s left the door open for scammers to capitalize. 

Of course, you can keep your print subscriptions! But it’s essential to heed MacDonald’s advice for vigilance and caution. To do this, you’ll need to know more about what magazine scams are, the different methods con artists use to rip people off, red flags and how to protect yourself. Consider this your guide to closing the book on magazine scams.

What are magazine scams?

Magazine scams come in various forms. They happen via telemarketing, door-to-door sales and fake invoices, which often show up in your mailbox. Telemarketers may tell you that you have won a large prize, like an expensive necklace, but need to pay for a magazine subscription to receive it. You may also receive a call, like the Texas woman, saying you owe money and need to pay up immediately. 

There’s another way scammers try to get large sums of money from you: Invoices. For example, some cons will send an invoice that looks legitimate and uses words like “billing” and “publisher,” but they’ll charge you much more than the subscription is worth.

Other times, telemarketers and even door-to-door salespeople will claim they are selling subscriptions for a good cause, such as a hospital or summer camp, and they’ll ask for personal information, like a credit card, and charge too much money.

Red flags to look out for:

Scammers are sneaky, and they’ll often sound like they are pushing a perfectly legitimate magazine subscription or sound convincing when they say you forgot to pay a bill. To protect yourself, take a moment to consider if someone selling a magazine subscription is raising any of these flags:

  • Huge costs or fees. Have you ever paid that much for a magazine subscription? Yes, prices go up, but it could be fraudulent if it’s several times what you usually pay.
  • Door-to-door or telemarketing. Publishers don’t have people going door-to-door anymore, and telemarketing is rare. More likely, they’ll send you an advertisement via direct mail or email.
  • Rude, threatening tones. Publishers want to make money, but they don’t resort to threats. If someone threatens legal action or to automatically sign you up for a subscription if you don’t pay a fee immediately, that’s a giant flag.
  • Personal information requests. Publishers don’t need your social security number to process a subscription.

Here’s how to protect yourself:

Besides knowing what the red flags are, there are a few simple steps you can take to protect yourself against magazine scams.

  • Know when your subscription ends. If you have a year left on your subscription and know it, you’ll be less likely to listen to a con telling you that you owe money ASAP.
  • Contact the publisher directly. If you get an invoice and you are unsure, go online, find the publisher’s number and call them directly to ask about your account.
  • Don’t buy from a telemarketer or door-to-door salesperson. Sign up for a subscription on the publisher’s website or by filling out a form in a magazine you bought in a store.
  • Contact the FTC if you think you’ve been a victim of fraud. File a complaint here.
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