LENA MITCHELL: It takes vigilance to avoid being a victim of scams

This is a time of year that abounds with warnings about scams, people trying to take your money through fraudulent schemes.

During the past few months criminal scammers have used a wide variety of methods to reel in victims: calling utility customers demanding immediate payment of “overdue” bills and using the name of local utility providers; supposed Internal Revenue Service employees calling to demand immediate payment of back taxes with a debit card or wire transfer; mailings to Mississippi homeowners from an out-of-state company asking for a payment of $83 for a warranty deed.

Even people we’ve been taught to trust – law enforcement officers – have been convicted of taking money from motorists in illegal traffic stops.

And it is trust that lies at the heart of the scam artist’s ability to fool victims.

Sometimes even the most alert person can be hoodwinked if the communication appears to come from a company you’re accustomed to doing business with, as in the examples of utility companies and the IRS mentioned above. That’s one reason some companies will send out notices to tell you they will not call or email to ask you for banking information.

Unfortunately, there are also legitimate businesses that also employ unethical practices that have the same effect on consumers that fraudulent scams do.

Remember telephone slamming?

Long, long ago – the early 1980s – most people had landline telephone service with AT&T.

Then a deregulation lawsuit led to the breakup of AT&T into a multitude of different companies, and many smaller companies began providing local telephone landline service. (At the time, cell phones were only a twinkle in someone’s eye.)

Although people who wanted to switch from AT&T to a different phone company were required to give notice, some companies began to switch customers from AT&T without their knowledge or consent, and so the term “slamming” was coined. Seemingly reputable businesses used unethical methods to gain a competitive advantage.

I recently became aware of a practice by a company called TWX Magazines that brought that old business scheme to mind, when my bank account was raided for payment for a magazine subscription that I had never ordered and never received.

As I examined my bank statement I came across a charge that I called the bank to question. When I filed a dispute of the charge my bank put the funds back into my account the next day.

I went online to see if other people had experienced something similar, and found that the source of the problem was an ordinary transaction with a trusted retailer.

Apparently TWX Magazine – a subsidiary of Time Warner – has arrangements with Steinmart, Finish Line, Goody’s department store and other retailers – to have cashiers routinely ask customers at checkout if they’d like to have a free three-month subscription to up to three magazines.

I’ve always said “no” to such offers, and apparently many others who wrote online comments about the company said “no” as well.

However, I had used a debit card for my purchase and apparently made it possible for someone to go ahead and submit a subscription in my name using my debit card information. Other online complaints indicated victims had used debit or credit cards also.

I’ve always wondered why scammers, who are so clever and creative at thinking of ways to bilk people out of their money, don’t put their considerable skills to use in a legitimate occupation, where I would think they’d be very successful.

Unfortunately, some businesses seem to pursue their profit objectives with the same lack of principle.

Lena Mitchell is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.