WASHINGTON -- MasterCard International Inc. has enlisted actor Corbin Bernsen to speak out against telemarketing fraud.

In a jovial Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday, Mr. Bernsen, best known for his role as Arnie Becker in the television series "L.A. Law," joined a host of dignitaries to kick off the MasterCard campaign "Know the difference. Hang up on Fraud."

Mr. Bernsen appears in public service announcements, funded by MasterCard, that have been distributed to 1,200 television stations and 620 radio stations, as well as ads developed for the print media.

The campaign is a joint venture between the New York-based association and the National Fraud Information Center. The center is operated by the National Consumer League, a private, nonprofit organization, based in Washington.

Two U.S. senators who are sponsoring legislation aimed at controlling telemarketing fraud, Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., and Rep. Al Swift, D-Wash., joined Peter S.P. Dimsey, president of MasterCard's U.S. region, Mr. Bernsen, and J. Joseph Curran Jr., the Maryland attorney general, to speak at the press conference.

"We have three objectives," said Mr. Dimsey. "To raise awareness, to educate on how to avoid, and to report fraud, which [victimizes] those who are least able to understand the pitch."

Up to $40 Billion in Losses

The fraud information center, which provides consumers with information on fraud and helps them to file complaints against scam artists, reports that losses due to consumer fraud could be as much as $40 billion a year.

The elderly, the poor, and recent immigrants to the United States, tend to be the people most who are most vulnerable to this kind of fraud.

The emphasis of the MasterCard and fraud center campaign is prevention.

Truth-in-Lending and association bylaws allow for consumers to be reimbursed for fraud under certain circumstances. For example, if their card has been used in a fraudulent transaction and they report it, typically they are only are responsible for $50 of the fraud.

MasterCard said in the U.S. region its members lost $283 million in 1993 due to charge-offs, and $35 million due to mail and telephone order fraud, down 8.5% from 1992.

Distinguishing Fraud

Other features of the new campaign include a brochure called "Schemes, Scams, and Flim-Flams: A Consumer's Guide to Phone Fraud." It is available through MasterCard's and the center's toll-free telephone numbers. Also, the team is distributing posters.

The television spots in which Mr. Bernsen appears include only the fraud information center's toll-free number.

The campaign advises consumers that one key difference between a legitimate sales pitch and a fraudulent one is that the former will provide the full name address and telephone number of its business or organization, send information through the mail on its products or services, and answer questions about how they obtained the consumer's name.

Conversely, the scam artist's pitch invariably begins with something to the effect of, "This is your lucky day," and there is a sense of urgency regarding payment, said Mr. Curran, the attorney general.

The campaign, which is expected to run through the end of the year, represents MasterCard's first foray into combating telemarketing fraud.

Both Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard International helped to found the fraud information center in 1992, but Visa has been involved in the fight against telemarketing fraud since 1990, when the San Francisco based association introduced a fraud hotline.

Visa's toll-free number operates similarly to the fraud information center's number, in that consumers are given advice on what to do if they have been victimized. Visa said it investigates all scams that are reported to its hotline.

MasterCard believes that its campaign will be effective in fighting fraud because of the high profile Mr. Bernsen gives it.

"Mr. Bernsen's involvement will help consumers feel less embarrassed about calling the toll-free number," Mr. Curran said.

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