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Beware of telemarketing scams!

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that the Federal Trade Commission has strengthened rules to prevent problems that can be caused by telemarketers selling pseudo vacation packages and deceptive prize promotions. The new rules go into effect on January 1. One key improvement is that state attorney generals can go after scam operations in federal courts to stop their operations on a national basis. Previously, scamsters could function in one state and then move onto to another state and start bilking a new set of consumers.

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New rules, while not as tough as originally proposed (telemarketers opposed some of the measures in initial proposal), do make it illegal to call back the same consumer who specifically requested to be left alone. Rules also require that telemarketers offering prize promotions disclose all costs, restrictions, refunds, and exchange policies. Moreover, this provision covers phone calls as well as the postcards promoting packages and requiring consumers to phone for details. Telemarketers also have to tell consumers that they're making a sales call and identify themselves; if they're offering a prize, such as vacation vouchers, they have to indicate that no purchase is needed.

Bad news? Effectiveness of new watered-down rules remains to be seen, meanwhile unwary consumers are still being duped.

If you receive postcards and phone calls informing you that you've been specially selected to receive valuable travel vacations and prizes the information may sound good, but be skeptical and never give out your credit card number or any banking information over the phone without being sure the outfit contacting you is legitimate. The offers that sound too good to be true are probably not worth pursuing. Even if one element of a package has a low-ball price, like the flights, you may be soaked by an excessive hotel rate. Better deals and prices may be available through regular channels such as legitimate travel agents, all you need to do is contact them. The more you are urged to make a quick decision, the more reason to back off. If the deal requires you to wait a certain amount of time before taking your trip, the reason may be to allow the scam outfit to vacate and move on to a new location (probably in another state) and new victims.

If you really want to check the "deal" out, Here are some pointers:

Not all telemarketing operations, it should be noted, are scams. You can make inquiries about a telemarketing call or suspicious piece of mail to the National Fraud Information Center (800-876-7060), run by the National Consumers League, a private, non-profit membership organization dedicated to consumer advocacy. Don't expect advice about a specific outfit, but you can get useful information to help you make decisions and how to go about reporting a possible scam.

For more information on the FTC rules, write the Federal Trade Commission, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Public Reference Room 130, 6th St. & Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington DC 20580.

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