Wallingford, CT - December 24, 2009 – 2009 will be remembered as a year that old and new technologies were used to bombard and attempt to cheat consumers out of money and steal critical personal information, according to Better Business Bureau’s top 10 list of scams in 2009.
Though the Internet was the primary medium used in efforts to scam consumers, the telephone and mail were also tools for con artists and unscrupulous businesses. Even cell phones and telephone numbers on the “Do Not Call” registry were not immune.
Many scams sought to take advantage of the unemployed and others battered by the economic meltdown. In addition, widespread “free trial” offers on the Internet were used to unwittingly lock consumers into unwanted and recurring credit and debit card charges.
According to Connecticut Better Business Bureau President, Paulette Scarpetti, 2009 saw an array of scams, many of which took advantage of consumers’ desperation.
“Week after week consumers’ trust was eroded by widespread use of technology – old and new – to try and cheat them and steal their personal information.
“Some parts of the country were affected more than others, such as areas hard hit by the housing crisis,” adds Scarpetti. “Consumers in those areas were subject to aggressive bogus offers promising to rescue them from foreclosure and reduce their debt.”
Following, in no particular order, is BBB’s list of top scams that took advantage of consumers and small business owners across the U.S. in 2009:
- Acai Supplements and Other “Free” Trial Offers – Ads offering trial offers for teeth whiteners, acai anti-aging pills and other “miracle” supplements blanket the Internet, including trusted Web sites of national news organizations. The marketing campaigns often falsely claimed celebrity endorsement and involved unauthorized use of corporate logos. Thousands of consumers complained to BBB that the free trial actually cost them as much as hundreds of dollars, month after month.
- Stimulus/Government Grant Scams – Even before President Obama announced the stimulus plan in February, scammers had already set up schemes for misleading consumers and small business owners into thinking they could get a piece of the pie. Offers for worthless assistance and advice on how to get government grants bombarded consumers online, over the phone and via mail and e-mail.
- Robocalls – Owning a cell phone or having their phone number on the do-not-call list did not help thousands of people across the U.S. put a stop to harassing automated telemarketing calls in 2009. The robocalls often claimed that their auto warranty was about to expire—which wasn’t true—or offered help in reducing their interest rate on their credit card. The prevalence of robocalls violating federal telemarketing laws prompted the FTC to increase restrictions on the practice in 2009.
- Lottery/Sweepstakes Scam – The victim receives a letter in the mail pretending to be from Reader’s Digest, Publisher’s Clearing House or a phony foreign lottery claiming that he or she has won millions. The letter comes with a check that represents only a portion of the total winnings. In order to get the rest, the victim has to deposit the check and then wire hundreds of dollars back to the scammers, supposedly to cover taxes or some other bogus fee. The victim wires the money, but the prize never arrives.
- Job Hunter Scams –Scams targeting job hunters vary and include attempts to gain access to personal information such as bank account or social security numbers and requirements to pay a fee in order to even be considered for the job. Another common scam was reported to BBB by job hunters who were told by a prospective employer that they had to check their credit report before being considered for a job. The job offer is actually a marketing ploy for online credit monitoring that costs the victim every month until they cancel.
- 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 and offered a free trial of learning materials. The Web sites often included the Google or Twitter moniker and logo. As a result, many people who complained to BBB thought they were getting a job with Google or Twitter when in, fact, they were being lured into another misleading free-trial offer and were billed every month for the materials and other mystery charges that added up to hundreds of dollars.
- Mortgage Foreclosure Rescue/Debt Assistance – Many families are struggling in the current economy and hucksters are offering to help them save their houses from foreclosure or help them get out of credit card debt. Unfortunately, victims are paying hundreds of dollars up front for the assistance they desperately need but ultimately never receive.
- Mystery Shopping – Consumers across the country thought that they could make some extra money by becoming a secret shopper and evaluating the customer service of various stores. The victim is asked to evaluate their shopping experience at a few stores as well as a money wiring service such as Western Union or MoneyGram by wiring money back to the scammers. A seemingly authentic-looking check is supposed to cover the costs, but ends up being counterfeit. The victim is out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
- Over-Payment Scams – Over-payment scams typically target small business owners, landlords or individuals with rooms to rent and sellers on classifieds or sites like Craigslist. Typically the scammer pretends to be a customer, possible renter or interested buyer, respectively. The victim receives 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 is really wiring money back to the scammers.
- Phishing e-mails/H1N1 spam – A perennial problem, phishing e-mails pop up in e-mail inboxes and can take various forms such as appearing to be from a business, a government agency or even a friend. Whatever the setup, the goal of any phishing e-mail is the same: to trick victims into divulging sensitive financial information or to infect the victim’s computer with viruses and malware. In addition to phishing e-mails, spam e-mail selling wares to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus were particularly rampant in 2009. Social networking sites were also used for phishing.
Consumers or small business owners victimized by a scam can contact their local BBB or file a complaint at www.bbb.org
. Always research a business with BBB before you sign any contracts or hand over any money.