Watch Out for These Doorstep Scam Artist Tricks

2010 Census adds to flow of scam artists who might knock at your door with a plausible story: Internet Scambusters #367

The impending 2010 US Census is just one of several ruses a scam artist might use when he or she knocks at your door. There are plenty more.

From panhandlers begging for money and bogus students selling magazine subscriptions to phony utility workers who want to get into your house or get you outside, these scammers know all the tricks.

So should you. And where better to start than this Scambusters issue, which also outlines how to deal with potential front door scams?

Let’s get started…

Watch Out for These Doorstep Scam Artist Tricks

Is there a scam artist knocking at your front door? Maybe, because doorstep scams are on the rise. And there’s good reason to believe that 2010 could be a bumper year for these crooks who try to trick you either out of your possessions or personal information they can use for identity theft.

In fact, as you’ll see next week, we’ve included Doorstep Scams on our list of the Top Scams of 2010.

One reason is the 2010 US Census, which we already wrote about in Swine Flu and Census Scams Exploit Fear and Ignorance — but after a recent new spate of Census scam alerts, it’s worth repeating the warning.

Census Scams

Census scams can also arrive by email — and that’s always a con because the US Census Bureau doesn’t use email to gather information.

But the most dangerous trick is when a bogus Census worker turns up at your front door and starts asking detailed questions about your personal finances and demands information including your Social Security number (which, just for the record, the real Census does not collect).

Even though Census workers may ask general financial questions, about your earnings range for instance, their main quest is to establish how many people are at the house on Census day (for population calculations) and the types of jobs they do.

If someone claiming to be a Census worker knocks at your door, they will have identification, a badge, a handheld device, a Census Bureau canvas bag, and a confidentiality notice.

Action: Always ask to see their identification and their badge before answering their questions — and inspect them closely.

If you suspect a Census scam or have any doubts about authenticity, contact the Census Bureau. More details of this and other information can be found at the Bureau’s website at

And, of course, the best way to reduce the Census scam risk is to fill in and return your postal Census form, which will be mailed out in March for National Census Day, which is on April 1.

Sadly, Census scams are just one of the crimes you may face at your front door. Here are other key doorstep scams to be aware of…

Bogus Charity Collections and Magazine Subscriptions

This is a huge category of scam which has been going on for years, raking in millions of dollars.

The bottom line is that unless you know the caller, you might have no way of confirming who they say they are. Some even carry phony identification, while others have children with them to make their plea seem more convincing.

To some extent, you’re dependent on your gut instinct when someone calls at your house and asks for money. A safe bet is to take the contact details of the organization they say they’re collecting for and send the money directly to them.

Sometimes, of course, they’re selling stuff — often items for future delivery, especially to raise funds for schools and community organizations, and there’s no harm in asking them to call back after you’ve checked out their credentials.

If they’re scammers, they won’t return.

A simple but sneaky trick a charity scam artist might try is to ask you to pay by check made out to the organization they’re supposedly collecting for.

That makes it seem authentic, doesn’t it? But for scammers, the name will be one that can easily be altered.

For example, in one recent incident, charity scam artists selling phony magazine subscriptions claimed to be students working for College Associate Sales. They asked for checks to be made out to “CAS”. They add an “H” — so you’ve just handed them “CASH”!

Utility Company Scams

Another type of scam artist who might turn up on your doorstep claims to work for one of the local utility companies, usually the phone or water company.

Their motives vary and you should never admit them to your home without confirming their identity, especially if they turn up unannounced rather than by appointment.

(You still should be wary even if an appointment is made by an incoming phone call. Always double check it with the utility company.)

What do these utility scam artists want? Perhaps to:

  • Get into your home on the pretext of checking an installation when they really want to check out your house contents for immediate or future theft.
  • Get you out of the house, supposedly to inspect an invented problem or help identify underground utility lines, while an accomplice enters your home to steal your stuff.
  • Identify and “fix” a fault, for which they demand immediate payment. Utility companies don’t usually operate this way.

Bogus contractors who knock at your door may also use some of these tricks, as well as offering to carry out cheap repairs that are either unnecessary or done badly.

Even worse, they may not be done at all, if you pay upfront. See last week’s issue covering repair scam tricks for more details on this ruse: 20 Smart Steps to Stop Repair Scam Artists from Fixing Your Wallet.

Other people who might try to get into your home include con artists who claim to have had an auto breakdown and ask to use your phone, while yet others may just ask to pay a visit to your bathroom.

How to Deal With Potential Front Door Scams

If you’re alone, elderly or otherwise vulnerable — or even slightly suspicious — our advice is to say: “I’m sorry, I’ve been advised not to let anyone into the house.” Then quickly shut the door.

Most front door scam artists usually come over as nice, polite people, often well-dressed. It’s all part of their act.

But there are times when they turn nasty. Some may simply be panhandlers, who call at your house asking for money for some invented need, again like an auto breakdown or running out of fuel.

Others may be high-pressure salespeople, who turn on the charm at the outset, then become increasingly hostile as you resist their sales patter.

Again, these characters are often selling shoddy or overpriced goods and you should never buy from them on the spur of the moment. If you’re interested in what they’re offering, say you’ll call them back — and shut the door. Never invite them in.

For all of the reasons we’ve outlined in this issue, it’s worth considering installing a through-the-door “peep-hole” that allows you to see who’s outside before opening up.

You can also think about using a safety chain that allows the door to be securely opened just a few inches while you talk to the person on your doorstep (but we prefer the “peep-hole” approach since you are then not opening the door.

The bottom line is that you should always be ready to not open or shut the door in the face of a persistent or suspicious person. It may seem rude — but it’s better than becoming the victim of a doorstep scam artist.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week, a Merry Christmas and a very happy holiday season!