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Scam Alert: Political Surveys That Are Actually Sales Pitches

Talk about dirty politics: Election-related robocalls may turn out to be timeshare come-ons

By Caroline Mayer

My husband and I have come to dread the phone in the weeks before an election. It seems even worse this year, probably because we live in a swing state (Virginia). In one day I received eight requests to support a candidate or take a political survey. (Even if you signed up for the national Do Not Call list, politicians and pollsters can still call you.)
(MORE: Watch Out for Loopholes in the New Robocall Rules)
Here’s the worst part: Some unscrupulous companies are pretending to request your participation in a political survey when their real goal is to sell products, like timeshares, or to get their hands on credit-card information.
A Free Cruise That Sounded Fishy
Consider this call I received: In a recorded message, John of “Political Opinions of America” asked me to take a short political survey. In return, he said, I’d get a free two-day, two-night cruise to the Bahamas, not including gratuities and a $59 per person port tax. Once I completed the survey, I was connected to a “travel specialist” with “Caribbean Cruise Line” to facilitate booking. The specialist asked me to select a date.
Ever the leery consumer reporter, I couldn’t simply play along. Instead, I asked how the cruise line could afford to offer me a free trip. “It’s unused cabins," she explained. "We want to fill the cabins. For us it’s great free advertising — you’ll tell all your friends about the cruise.”
When I told the specialist I’d need more time to consider the offer, she said I had to make a decision immediately because the offer expired when the phone call ended.
That’s when I knew this survey wasn’t kosher.
Consumer Alerts About Political Surveys
Browsing the Web, I discovered many complaints about Political Opinions of America and Caribbean Cruise Line, which is not related to Royal Caribbean. I also ran across a bunch of law-enforcement consumer alerts about sham political surveys.
The Better Business Bureau has received 1,290 complaints against Caribbean Cruise Line. Chief among them: The pitch didn’t mention that you’d need to attend a two-hour timeshare sales seminar either before boarding the ship or during the cruise.
Florida’s attorney general is investigating the cruise line, looking into complaints of high-pressure tactics to collect credit-card information and unauthorized charges. And Maine’s attorney general, William J. Schneider, has issued a general warning about sham political robocalls that are attempts to sell timeshares.
(MORE: Telemarketing Calls Like This One Are Cause for Alarm)
Similarly, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center that's known as IC3, issued an alert about “a scam involving telephone calls conducting a multiple-choice ‘political survey’ and a website with a Caribbean Cruise Line banner.”
What Made One Blogger Suspicious
Aryeh Goretsky, a San Diego-based researcher at the anti-malware and security software firm ESET, blogged his concerns regarding Political Opinions of America on ESET’s site after receiving three robocall surveys.
When I called Goretsky, he told me the Political Opinions of America site had “a number of suspicious things that set off my triggers.” Its Web page “was full of grammatical mistakes and lacked any address, telephone number or contact information.” The site also didn’t include a client list. Any reputable survey organization would publish such a list to promote itself and generate business, Goretsky said.
Later this month, the Federal Trade Commission is holding a Robocall Summit, due to a rise in complaints about these types of calls over the past two years.
4 Tips for Survey Robocalls
Meantime, there are several things you can do if you get a call asking you to take a political survey in exchange for a free offer. Experts I interviewed shared these four tips:
1. Be suspicious if you’re promised something in return for answering the survey. “I don’t know of any legitimate political poll that offers prizes for answering the questions," says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.
2. Don’t sign up for a cruise until you’ve checked out the line’s reputation. Read company and ship reviews on the Internet. The Cruise Critic site is a good place to start. Also, find out if any complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general in the state where the cruise line is located.
3. Don't give out your credit card information. Don’t provide your account number unless you initiated the call or you’re certain the caller — a charity, for example — is legitimate. 
4. If you don’t want to answer the robocall survey, hang up. Don't press “1 to speak to a live operator.” And don’t press any other number, hoping that it will get you off the company’s phone list; it will probably just lead to more robocalls, according to the FTC. And more robocalls is the last thing you want during election season — or any time of year.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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