The state of Texas has shut down a direct mail marketing firm that it says operated an unlawful "lead card" scheme and targeted senior citizens.

Prospect Pros LLC, which did business as American Seniors Alliance, used improper tactics to obtain senior citizens' personal information. According to state investigators, the firm packaged and sold the unlawfully obtained information to insurance companies and sales solicitation firms.

In early 2006, the attorney general took legal action against four "lead card" generation schemes, including Prospect Pros in early 2006. All but one — Lead Concepts Inc. and its owner Christopher Weir — have been resolved.

Prospect Pros produced and mailed misleading direct mail solicitations that were intended to alarm senior citizens. The mailers featured urgent messages in boldface type, appeared to come from government agencies and were intended to obtain the recipient's personal information via postage-paid return cards.

Prospect Pros, for example, mailed a "Medicare Update" that purported to provide information about changes to the Medicare program and appeared to be sponsored by the federal government. By law, the lead card solicitation must state clearly that it is not affiliated with any governmental agency. Other mailers appeared to inform older Texans about estate and probate tax avoidance.

In other cases, mailers were designed to make elderly recipients think their government benefits might be in jeopardy and that returning the cards would preserve those benefits.

Under the agreed final judgment, Prospect Pros LLC, Prospect Pros Inc. and owners William D. and Lynn Thompson are prohibited from sending misleading or untrue direct mail to senior citizens.

In the future, they must clearly disclose when mailers are sent on behalf of a particular insurance agent or other vendor and that these representatives may contact seniors who respond. The newly required disclosures will ensure that senior citizens are aware of the direct mail solicitations' true purpose.

"Grandparent scam"

Texas authorities also warned seniors to be wary if they receive a call from someone claiming to be a grandchild in trouble. Those calls could be from a con artist trying to get money in an old ruse called the "grandparent scam."

In this scam, con artists call and says something like "Hi, grandma," or "Hey, it's your favorite grandson." The con artists then claims they've had an accident, were arrested, or in some other type of trouble and need money. Many times, they claim they're calling from Canada.

"The 'grandchild' also insists that the victim not tell anyone else, which increases the odds that the fraud will be successful," Texas authorities warn. "If all goes according to the con artist's plan, the victim will wire money to the 'grandchild.'"

When senior citizens learn this is a scam, their money is gone. And authorities say it's unlikely their funds will be recovered.

"This type of fraud is particularly troubling, as it plays upon a grandparent's natural desire to protect a grandchild," Texas officials said. "Although variations of this scam have been around for a long time, it has become more sophisticated with the proliferation of information on the Internet."

Authorities say con artists now use personal information gleaned from family blogs, genealogy Web sites, social networking Web sites, and online newspapers. That information often gives the callers more credibility.

To protect themselves from getting taken in this scheme, seniors should be wary of the following red flags:

• Callers requesting money;

• Callers claiming to be in Canada or other foreign location;

• Callers insisting on secrecy;

• Callers pressuring them to take quick action;

• Callers with unfamiliar voices;

• Callers requesting money be sent by wire transfer. Those funds are hard to track and almost impossible to recover, authorities say;

• Elusive callers who get personal details wrong;

Seniors who receive a call from any relative asking for money should ask personal questions that only a family would know, authorities says. They should never "fill in the blanks" for any caller.

Seniors should also ask for the callers name and a phone number where they can reach them. And always verify the caller's story with another family member.

Texas seniors who have lost money in this or any scam can contact the Office of the Attorney General at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint on the Attorney General's Web site. .

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