Anneli Rufus

Did a Narcissist Steal Your Self-Esteem?

He watched his mother talk—about her hair, her friends, her car—for twenty minutes. When she paused for breath, he said: "I got promoted at work. They're sending me to—"

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I Completely Lost My Will to Write After a Long Career - Until I Discovered Graphic Novels

I've just e-published my first graphic novel. I'm not sure whether this is a radiant, birdsong-bright threshold or the cold end of the road. I'm proud of it, but also horribly ashamed.

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Why Changing My Name Was and Wasn't the Worst Thing I Ever Did

You might recognize my name—my byline, as we writers say, seizing this shard of shoptalk as our consolation prize for earning far less than we ever dreamed we would.

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Poop Is the Most Important Indicator of Your Health

In a dirty, crowded world where germs are outsmarting drugs by leaps and bounds and our health care options may or may not be mired in red tape for years, we're being forced to face feces. Which is kind of a good thing. They're the ID cards our bodies issue, charting with terrifying accuracy where we've been and what we've done. The bowel knows.

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10 Tricks That Con Artists Use to Scam the Elderly

The older we get, the more attractive we become -- to fraudsters. Preying on those breakdowns that come with age, from hearing loss to loneliness, criminals tailor special scams with seniors in mind. Financial crimes against the elderly are rampant. Bank accounts are being quietly wiped out. Afraid, betrayed, blaming themselves for being fooled -- believe me, I've seen it -- victims hesitate to call the cops. For most of us, these crimes are scroll-over territory because seniors and what happens to them aren't sexy. Members of the elderly crowd having their purses snatched by phony plumbers or being convinced to buy shares in companies that don't exist? We don't want to go there. Fraudsters do. Maybe one of them is ringing your mother's doorbell right now.

Here are ten common scams that target seniors.

1. "You've Already Won…."
Official-looking documents designed to trick recipients into thinking they've won money are worded carefully so as to stay legal. These documents hide crucial information (e.g., the fact that they're not really prize announcements) in tiny italic type -- because reading italics is much harder for people with low vision than reading upright fonts. Following "instructions," recipients send checks that they believe are processing fees to faraway post-office boxes. The amounts are small -- from $5 to $50 --but they add up, given that individual scammers typically operate several fake-sweepstakes scams simultaneously. Addresses of those who send checks are sold to other scammers; more sweepstakes letters pour in. "It plays on the emotions," says Melodye Kleinman of the National Telemarketing Victim Call Center. In one recent case NTVCC handled, an 88-year-old widow spent over $60,000 on fake sweepstakes in just two years.

2. Talk to Me
Seniors are prime targets for sleazy telemarketers "because they're usually home during the day when the calls come in," Kleinman says. "They're lonely, so they'll talk" to friendly-sounding strangers who call and ask them questions about themselves, then tell them they've won prizes or offer "great deals" on nonexistent merchandise, services, or financial plans. In order to claim these nonexistent prizes or deals -- and to cover alleged postage and handling or first-installment fees -- victims divulge their credit-card and bank-account numbers. "We want to convince people just to hang up" when strangers call, Kleinman says. "But there's a human tendency to share information about yourself if someone asks for it in a certain way."

3. Spectral Startups
This is telemarketing mixed with the long con, a sophisticated process that comprises half of NTVCC's cases. Calling seniors whom they suspect are fairly well-off -- especially seniors who were or are businesspeople --scammers proffer bogus investment opportunities. "The callers say, 'I've got a great deal for you; we can move on it really fast,'" Kleinman says. "They say, 'If you had invested in Microsoft, think how rich you'd be now. Well, this is a similar opportunity, so let's get started. Can I have your $50,000 right now?'" Some victims fork it over. Some ask for evidence -- and are sent authentic-looking materials detailing nonexistent projects and companies. Many involve films, Kleinman says: "They promise that you'll get to walk down the red carpet with big stars." In one recent case, a man with dementia "invested" in a nonexistent series of religious films for children. NTVCC called in the FBI; the scammer was arrested and convicted.

4. Engine Trouble
Pulling into a parking space, a senior exits his or her car and enters a store. The scammer, who has been waiting and watching specifically for elderly drivers, swiftly approaches the car after its owner is out of sight and disables it, typically by detaching a spark-plug wire. The scammer then waits -- nearby but not so nearby as to look suspicious -- for the senior to return. When the car doesn't start, the scammer poses as a helpful passerby, fixes it, then demands a large cash reward. "They literally get into the car and go to the bank with the elderly person," says economic-crime detective Joe Roubicek, who works with the Florida State Attorney's office and covers such scams at his website and in his book, Financial Abuse of the Elderly (Ruby House, 2008).

5. I.O.U.
Seniors are easily persuaded to loan money to relatives, employees, neighbors, and "friends" who will never pay them back. Seniors loan money because they're lonely and believe the loan will buy companionship. They do it because they're afraid of what the loanee will do if they refuse. They do it because they tell themselves: It's not so much. I'm not using it for anything else. I won't even notice its absence. So-and-so needs it more than I do right now. They do it because they're afraid of seeming selfish or cheap if they don't. They do it because they believe the loanee's (usually false) reason for requesting it. But receiving such loans often counts as a crime, Roubicek says. "Lack of capacity" -- physical and/or mental --"is assumed to be lack of consent in criminal law, whether it be personal loans, sweepstakes fraud, or selling a $1,200 refrigerator to a 96-year-old man."

6. Doom on the Doorstep
A common gambit finds scammers cruising neighborhoods in small groups. Targeting seniors who live alone, they ring doorbells. Greeting the senior, Roubicek says, "they claim they've been sent by the local gas or water company to check or fix something." To aid the scam, scammers often wear ersatz uniforms. Invited in by the credulous senior, two scammers pretend to do the checkup or repair while another distracts the senior with friendly conversation or a fake questionnaire as a fourth cruises the home stealing valuables. Sometimes these scammers also unlock back doors or windows to facilitate future burglaries. Some of these scammers "accidentally" spill liquids such as cleaning fluids on seniors' hands, slipping off the seniors' jewelry while "gallantly" wiping their hands clean, Roubicek says.

7. Readymade Repairs
Yet another doorstep scam entails "gardeners" or "handymen" offering to do "necessary" repair work --on cracked driveways, say, or dangling half-broken tree limbs. (As part of this scam, they have often secretly perpetrated this damage themselves.) Claiming that these conditions, if unrepaired, will damage the homes or violate city codes, these scammers scare seniors into hiring them on the spot. Some demand to be paid in advance for labor plus materials: Once paid, they drive off -- allegedly to buy those materials -- but never return. Some actually do the work but without specifying a fee beforehand. Once finished, they demand exorbitant fees, threatening to call the cops if the victim doesn't pay. These scams too often end with lucrative trips to ATMs.

8. In the House
Granted unlimited access to seniors' bodies and homes, "caregivers top the list" of those who exploit the elderly, Roubicek says. Although caregiver agencies are required by law to do background checks on all potential employees, many don't bother. Roubicek says this kind of perp often has no criminal record, but simply can't resist the temptation to snatch unattended cash, clothes, credit cards, medications, checkbooks, jewelry, electronics, and personal information. "Once caught, these culprits rationalize their crimes, saying, 'The old lady wanted me to have this; she loves me,'" Roubicek says. Forgetful seniors face yet another scam when employees who have been paid claim that they haven't. Forgetting that they wrote the previous checks, the seniors write more.

9. For a Good Cause
Anyone can start a nonprofit organization, Roubicek says. The process requires merely a declaration that "it's for a cause -- any cause." Scammers often choose names for their fake nonprofits that can easily be mistaken for the names of well-known real nonprofits. Choosing "causes" such as health and children's welfare that appeal to seniors, they solicit "donations" via mass mailings and telemarketing. Roubicek cites one such scammer whose telemarketing teams target seniors in areas where police officers have recently been killed in the line of duty. These seniors' are told that their "donations" will help the dead cops' kids. "And while the law says that a nonprofit has to put some money toward the cause every year, it doesn't say how much." Kleinman has seen a large influx lately of fake green nonprofits: "They say they're doing alternative energy, building windmill farms and solar farms in the desert." They're not.

10. And You Are … ?
Personal information can be stolen from all of us in a distressingly wide variety of ways: via our mailboxes, wallets, purchases, Internet activities, medical records, and trash and recycling bins. In terms of identification theft, seniors are easy prey, whether it's because they're forgetful, because they're incapacitated, because they're not Internet-savvy, because they're trusting, and/or because their belongings are often within prowling-range of employees, relatives and even strangers. To their horror and often too late, they learn that their names and Social Security Numbers have been used to start credit accounts and facilitate shopping sprees, vacations, educations and addictions. Savvy scammers "can clean out their victims' bank accounts online," Roubicek laments, "although these days the banks are becoming a little more restrictive.

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Why the Eyewear Industry Is An Incredible Rip-Off

Those of us who need prescription eyewear need prescription eyewear. Are you wearing yours to read this? Imagine if you weren't. Imagine life without your glasses for a year, a week, an hour. Yet many health insurance plans, especially for the unemployed or self-employed, don't cover them.

Mine doesn't.

I recently went shopping for no-line progressive bifocals in small oval metal frames. Name brands mean nothing to me. Price does. My high astigmatism and need for bifocals disqualify me from those buy-one-get-one-free deals, which almost always involve only single-vision specs.

In store after store, megachains and optical boutiques alike, small oval metal frames fitted with lenses matching my prescription started at $300. One popular shop quoted me $582 for the lenses alone.

I bought a pair of no-line progressive bifocals in small oval metal frames for $44 online. I'm wearing them right now.

Perhaps because prescription glasses are where medicine meets fashion, they're among the world's most overpriced merchandise. Imperfect eyesight isn't your fault: You can't make yourself nearsighted by eating too much fudge. Yet if your health plan excludes vision care, you've spent years at the mercy of a $64 billion industry characterized by 500-percent markups.

This has begun to change over the last few years. A knowledge-is-power, power-to-the-people, Web-driven DIY wave is rocking the optical industry's very foundations. Dozens of companies now sell prescription glasses online, frames and lenses included, for as little as $7.95.

It works like this: Google "cheap glasses" to find a frame you like at a price you like at a site you like. (Among the most popular are 39DollarGlasses, ZenniOptical — where I bought mine — and Goggles4U.) Use the virtual fitting mechanism to "try it on." Type in your prescription (obtained from an actual eye doctor), pupillary distance (aka PD, derived by measuring the space between your pupils with a ruler), address and payment information. Send.

It's a virtual myopian/hyperopian/presbyopian Tea Party, led largely by Minnesota software engineer Ira Mitchell, who launched his revolutionary GlassyEyes blog (its motto is "Saving the World from Overpriced Glasses!") in 2006. Packed with forums, product reviews, discount deals, and tips for buying specs online, it's the vision-impaired version of Yelp.

"There is no appreciable functional or material difference" between prescription eyewear bought online and bought in brick-and-mortar stores, Mitchell tells me, but in stores "the cost to the consumer is anywhere from four to ten times more. It turns out that they’re making ridiculous margins on the frames, the lenses and the coatings."

Complete with antiscratch coatings and other pluses, his own glasses cost between $30 and $60 per pair online. Over the last three years, he’s bought around 40 pairs — because, at that price, he can.

Mitchell was appalled when he first began researching wholesale prices for optical merchandise and realized that opticians acquire lenses for as little as $3 each. "I've easily paid twenty times that when I didn't know any better," he says.

Granted, these glass, plastic, polycarbonate or polymer blanks must be ground to fit frames and prescriptions, and this takes work, but it's not rocket science. Typically, lens grinding is done by optical laboratory technicians. According to PayScale.com, OLTs in the United States earn between $9.73 and $14.40 per hour. Most learn on the job, and have only a high-school diploma or a GED. No specific certification is required.

The fleecing, Mitchell says, is just as bad on frames.

"A consumer-level frame costs significantly less than $10 to manufacture. The rest is operations, licensing and profit. Think about that the next time you pick up an average $150 frame. These aren't markedly different or superior to the $30 glasses available from reputable online dealers — and those include lenses, probably the same ones you were just about to pay $200 for in the store."

A key to the industry-standard overpricing is the fact that a single corporation — Luxottica, the world's largest eyewear firm — owns many retail eyewear chains and many popular eyewear brands. Based in Milan, Italy, Luxottica owns and operates LensCrafters, Sears Optical, Target Optical, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Ilori, and other chains in the United States, along with yet more chains throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, India, the Antipodes and the Middle East.

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'Spontaneous' Combustion: Can Bodies Burn From the Inside Out?

Can bodies burn from the inside out? When human beings are discovered burned to a crisp alone in their otherwise unscathed homes amidst no evidence of mayhem -- no telltale blowtorches, cigarettes or Butane -- rumors swirl: of mysteries and miracles in which bodies inexplicably burst into flames. It might be an urban legend, sheer magic or divine wrath (hey, it happens in Leviticus), but it is one of the most hotly debated (and hot) causes of death.

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