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msnbc.com

Telemarketing predators apparently have a great new source of leads: a database of victims who have recently been scammed. MSNBC.com has learned that Canadian-based criminals are calling recent scam victims around the United States, promising to get their money back — for a fee. The telemarketers claim to be working on behalf of official agencies, such as the New York State Attorney General’s Office or the Better Business Bureau. Already frustrated by the first victimization, some senior citizens are falling for the scam, officials say.

THEY WON’T STOP calling Mattie Patrick. She now gets two or three suspicious pitches a day.

The 72-year-old woman from Atlanta, Ga., lost $287 earlier this year to a fast-talking telemarketing company that tricked her into revealing her bank account information over the phone.

One theft like that is bad enough. But apparently falling for a trick like that has gotten Patrick — and perhaps thousands of others — on a so-called “sucker’s list.” The list is apparently being shared or sold among various underground telemarketing con artists. Now, Patrick is getting two or three calls a day from criminals trying to defraud her.

In fact, one continually offers to recover the $287 that was stolen — for a price.

“I’m so sick of these folks I don’t know what to do,” she said.

This particularly cruel kind of con was uncovered by investigators at the New York State Consumer Protection Board, which operates a “Do Not Call” telemarketing registry. New York Gov. George Pataki signed a law in 2000 that put the agency in charge of the registry, which helps consumers avoid telemarketing calls. The agency also investigates potential fraud, and has discovered that consumer victims around the country have received calls with similar offers.

“It’s true and very sad,” said May Chao, chairperson and executive director of the board. “You’d think that they’d get hit once, and then be left alone.”

Chao said the current flurry of scam calls is coming from a Canadian-based group that uses multiple names: among them are Teleguard, Telenetworx, and Smart America Services. But the callers always use the same phone number, 866-273-7227. For an address, they use a post office mailbox in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. The U.S. address helps deflect suspicion, but mail sent there is merely forwarded to an office in Montreal, according to Chao.

When MSNBC.com called Teleguard, an operator there defended the company’s services

“We take them off the buyers list,” he said, but wouldn’t explain what that meant. “If and only if they have been frauded we get the money back.” He couldn’t explain how stolen funds were recovered, saying only “that’s a different department.” The operator refused to talk more, insisting that his supervisor would call back.

Later, Alexander London Tobin called to say he was director of operations for a company named Telenetworx. Tobin said Telenetworx has run several anti-telemarketing campaigns, using the names Teleguard and Smart American Services. He admitted a rogue employee made calls at one point posing as a government official, but said the employee was fired. He also conceded there have been customer complaints, but argued they were small compared to the number of customers the company serves.

“These situations than have occurred but are minimal compared to amount of members who are satisfied,” Tobin said.

Telenetworx, he said, is actually based in Vermont, but uses a New York State address, and outsources customer service to operators in Montreal. Tobin, himself a Canadian, was in Montreal when he called.

He defended the company’s claims it could recover stolen funds, suggesting Telenetworx employees regular help customers get fraudulent charges removed from their credit cards.

The Better Business Bureau of New York indicates on its Web site that in April it received two complaints about the firm. Tobin said the firm had cleared up those matters, but the Better Business Bureau indicates on its Web site that Teleguard did not respond to the complaints.

‘ICON AMERICA’

The post office mailbox in New York has been used in other frauds, Chao said. In a bit of verbal irony, in another fraud complaint the company attached to that address is “Icon America.”

When they call, the telemarketers always misidentify themselves, claiming they are calling on behalf of the New York State Attorney General’s office or the Better Business Bureau.

The victims, already frustrated because they have lost money and seem to have no recourse, are sometimes enticed.

“Anything sounds good to them. They have lost money, and are a bit desperate, so they are already vulnerable,” Chao said.

Investigators aren’t quite sure how Teleguard, or other scam artists, get their hands on so-called “sucker lists.”

One disturbing possibility: so many Americans have been fraud victims of late that the phone book is essentially a victim list, and companies like Teleguard can random dial homeowners with their fraud recovery pitch, knowing they are likely to hit former victims.

But Chao says she’s seen this before, and among criminals such “lead lists” are actually a tool of the trade.

“Apparently there is this con artist network, and the list is passed around from one con to the other,” she said.

ELABORATE PITCH

When the group called Robert Kenesky, an 81-year-old from Sanborn, N.Y., the pitch was elaborate. Kenesky had recently lost money on a telemarketing scam involving an alleged travel discount package that never materialized.

“They called me and were telling me that the attorney general has money they collected that belongs to me,” he said. “They want me to sign up for Teleguard, and I would get a check from the attorney general for what they had collected.”

Kenesky, once bitten and now twice shy, hung up. But the group called back again, two weeks later. This time, they were ready for his skepticism. Knowing Kenesky’s disbelief that the attorney general was involved, the operator put Kenesky on hold for one minute and staged a call transfer supposedly to an official inside the state office, who assured Kenesky that Teleguard was legitimate.

“This guy rattled on for a while, and then I said, ‘Now wait a minute. If this is the attorney general’s office, I know it takes longer than 1 minute to get through to you people,” Kenesky said. He hung up again.

William Bamber, 41, of Mountain Home, Idaho got a similar call recently, in this case from Smart America Services. Bamber had lost about $600 in debit card fraud about six months ago. Again, the group said it represented the New York State Attorney General’s Office. If he signed up for their services for a $379 fee, Bamber would immediately receive $500 from a emergency victim’s fund, and he would eventually recover his lost $600. The complicated, fast-talking pitch also includes inclusion in a “do not call” list, which supposedly would prevent the victim from receiving telemarketing pitches. And the group was persistent.

“I just hung up on her,” Bamber said. “But that’s when a man called right back and said, ‘I don’t think you understood what she was trying to tell you.’ ”

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