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Be careful, vigilant, specific with telemarketers

What is telemarketing? In general, telemarketing involves situations in which companies sell their goods or services by calling customers, or consumers call companies to make purchases in response to mailings or other forms of advertising.

While there are many legitimate companies that use the telephone for marketing, consumers lose an estimated $40-billion a year through telemarketing fraud. The FBI estimates that there are 14,000 illegal telephone sales operations bilking consumers in the United States every day.

It's sometimes hard to distinguish between reputable telemarketers and criminals who are using the phone for fraudulent purposes. Here are some general telemarketing tips:

Do business with those you know and trust. If you aren't familiar with them, ask for information to be sent to you.

Understand the offer. Be sure you know who and where the company is and how to reach it, the total price, delivery date, return and cancellation policy and any guarantee. Get it in writing.

Check out the company's track record. Call the State of Florida Division of Consumer Services at (800) 435-7352 and ask if they have any complaints.

Be careful to whom you give financial or other personal information. Don't give your bank account, credit card number, or social security number out on the phone, unless you know the company is legitimate and the information is necessary for the transaction.

Pay by credit card rather than with a check, cash or money order if you know with whom you're doing business. If you use your credit card and have a problem, you have the right to notify the card issuer that you are disputing the charge and you don't have to pay while your dispute is being investigated.

Take time to decide. While there may be time limits for special offers, high pressure sales tactics are often danger signals of fraud.

Resist pressure to send your payment by private courier, wire or overnight delivery. These tactics are sometimes used to prevent you from changing your mind.

Don't enter contests or other games of chance unless you know the company. Fraudulent telemarketers often get lists of potential victims from entry forms for free trips or other prizes.

Beware of bogus recovery services that ask an "up front fee" to recover funds you may have lost money to a fraudulent telemarketer. Legitimate law enforcement agencies don't charge for helping telemarketing victims.

You can take action to prevent being scammed.

"Do not call" lists. To prevent a telemarketer from calling you again, tell them to place you on the company's "do not call" list. Federal law requires telemarketing companies to maintain "do not call" lists. Write down the company name, phone number and address. This law does not apply to non-profit organizations. Ask for the name of their supervisor. Telemarketers are required by law to give this information upon request. If a company calls again after you have asked it not to, note the company name and date.

If they call again, write a letter repeating your request. Keep a copy for your records. If a telemarketing company calls you after you have requested to be placed on its "do not call list" you can sue in small claims court under the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Public Law 102-243, for your actual monetary damages or $500 per violation (whichever is greater).

To file a suit, contact the small claims department at the courthouse. Once you have filed a suit, the company may approach you about settling the case. Feel free to negotiate a settlement. Often a company would rather pay than go to court. Hitting a company in the pocketbook is the best way to stop calls.

_ Dottie Teuton is executive director of the Better Business Federation. More information on this and other business/consumer questions may be obtained from the office at 6460 W Gulf to Lake Highway, Crystal River, FL 34429 or by calling in Citrus County at 795-3547 or Marion County 307-9222, or by e-mail at