Top 10 Scams of 2009
By Ric Edelman
Despite efforts to curb fraud and consumer rip-offs, con artists continue to demonstrate their ingenuity. In 2009, swindlers took advantage of the economy’s problems (including unemployment, government stimulus spending and the housing crisis) and headlines about swine flu to lure victims, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Here are the most common scams, according to the BBB’s list (in random order):
1. Stimulus/Government Grant Scams.
Even before President Obama announced the stimulus plan in February 2009, scammers had set up schemes for misleading consumers and small business owners into thinking they could get free government handouts. Offers for worthless advice on how to get government grants bombarded consumers online, over the phone, and via mail and email.
Owning a cell phone or joining the Do Not Call Registry did not help thousands of people who received harassing automated telemarketing calls anyway. Automated messages often falsely claim that your auto warranty is about to expire or offer bogus help in reducing credit card interest rates. Such “robocalls” violate federal telemarketing laws, prompting the Federal Trade Commission to increase restrictions in 2009.
3. Lottery/Sweepstakes Scam.
The victim receives a letter pretending to be from a magazine or foreign lottery, claiming that he or she had won millions. The letter comes with a check that represents only a portion of the total winnings. To get the rest, the victim is told to deposit the check and then wire hundreds of dollars back to the scammers — supposedly to cover taxes or other bogus fees. The victim wires the money, the check bounces and the prize never arrives.
4. Job Hunter Scams.
Scams targeting job hunters include attempts to gain access to personal information such as bank account and Social Security numbers. Some ask for a fee in order to even be considered for the job. Another common scam involved crooks who required job applicants to check their credit reports before being considered for a job; the job offer was actually a marketing ploy for online credit monitoring that costs the victims every month until they cancel.
5. Google Work-from-Home Scam.
Countless web sites cropped up in 2009 that claimed you could learn how to make money from home using Google or Twitter. Because the sites often included those companies’ monikers and logos, many people thought they were getting a job with Google or Twitter when they were instead being lured into a misleading free trial offer — and billed monthly for charges that added up to hundreds of dollars.
6. Mortgage Foreclosure Rescue/Debt Assistance.
Many struggling families are receiving offers that can allegedly help them avoid foreclosure or pay their credit card debts. Unfortunately, the victims pay hundreds of dollars up front for assistance they never receive.
7. Mystery Shopping.
Consumers across the country thought they could make money by evaluating customer service at retailers as a “secret shopper.” Victims are asked to evaluate money wiring services by — you guessed it — wiring their own money to the con men.
8. Overpayment Scams.
These typically target landlords, small business owners, individuals with rooms to rent, and sellers listed in classified ads and on sites like eBay and craigslist. Typically, the con artist pretends to be a customer, renter or buyer, and sends a check for more than the amount requested. The scammers then ask the victim to deposit the check and wire the extra amount elsewhere, such as to a shipping company. Ultimately, though, the check is fake, and the victim later discovers he’s actually wired his own money to the scammer — while giving out his bank account information.
9. Phishing Emails/H1N1 Spam.
A perennial problem, phishing emails appear to be from a business, a government agency or even a friend. Whatever the setup, the goal is the same: to trick victims into divulging sensitive financial information or to infect the victim’s computer with viruses. In addition to phishing emails, spam emails selling products that allegedly prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus were rampant in 2009.
10. Acai Supplements and Other “Free” Trial Offers.
Ads offering teeth whiteners, acai anti-aging pills and other miracle supplements blanket the Internet, including the web sites of national news organizations. Marketing campaigns often falsely claim to be endorsed by Oprah, Rachael Ray, Doctor Oz and other celebrities. The “free trials” offered actually cost hundreds of dollars month after month.