As 2006 draws to a close, a review of ConsumerAffairs.com's Scam Alerts archive shows that scammers have had a busy and -- we suspect -- lucrative year.
Targeting the most vulnerable citizens and using increasingly sophisticated tools, most have been able to easily elude law enforcement as they pick their victims' pockets, sometimes even making off with their life savings.
Scammers scored at will, generating instant cash using lottery and fake check scams. They capitalized on news events and pop culture to catch consumers off guard, and enlisted all kinds of emerging technology to perfect identity theft.
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Here then, chosen from the roughly 50,000 consumer complaints we've processed in the past year, are the ConsumerAffairs.com Top Ten Scams of 2006.
Topping our list for 2006, the fake lottery or sweepstakes scam only seems to get bigger and more dangerous. Promising victims they have won thousands of dollars in a Canadian or European lottery, they target the elderly, who seem to be particular susceptible to these schemes. ConsumerAffairs.com reported on one case in which an elderly Kansas man lost over $300,000.
More than 400 New Yorkers fell victim to sweepstakes and lottery scams in the first seven months of 2006, with losses ranging from a few hundred dollars to more than $35,000, according to an analysis by the New York State Consumer Protection Board.
While elderly people lost the most money, lottery scams also tricked younger people into believing they had won a large cash prize from a foreign lottery or sweepstakes. In each case, the victims sent money, usually to Canada, thinking they had to pay insurance or taxes before they could collect these bogus prizes.
"No legitimate contest makes you pay a fee to collect a prize," said CPB Chairperson and Executive Director Teresa A. Santiago. "For many of the elderly victims, the scam artists made multiple demands for cash, falsely claiming that more money was needed in order to pay for 'taxes' or insurance."
Sons and daughters have filed complaints after failing to convince their elderly parent that there was no prize.
"You can't win a contest that you didn't enter. But it's hard to convince someone that they are the victim of a scam, especially when the con artists have made numerous phone calls and formed a bond with the victim," Santiago said.
This scam, in which identity thieves "phish" for a consumer's personal information, are getting more and prevalent, due in large part to technological advances. The use of email now makes to increasingly easy for criminals to trick people into revealing account numbers, passwords and social security numbers.
Cleverly designed emails appear to be from a bank, credit union, or online payment service like PayPal, requesting account verification. If the consumer clicks on a link in the email, they are taken to a site designed to look like the bank's actual site, where they are instructed to enter the sensitive information, which is captured and used for identity theft purposes.
In 2006, "vishing" arrived on the scene. Instead of asking the spam recipient to click on a link, they are instructed to call a toll-free customer service number, which seems more the way a financial institution might do business. When they call, an automated system instructs the caller to enter account numbers or passwords, which are then recorded by the scammer.
Secure Computing, which specializes in secure connections over networks, sent up the red flag over this new method in 2005, though the first recorded incident didn't take place until May 2006, involving a Santa Barbara, California, bank. Secure Computing engineers have been tracking news group sites and open disclosure discussion groups discussing vishing.
"This is just a natural evolution of phishing itself," said Paul Henry, vice president of strategic accounts for Secure Computing.
"Simply put, people are becoming more aware of the fact that an e-mail containing a URL could be malicious in nature. So hackers are moving away from the URL and using something victims are more familiar with like calling a number."
This "advancement" has forced some financial institutions to consider additional changes to the way in which they communicate with customers.
Scammers are increasingly responding to job seekers posting their resumes at online employment sites, such as Careerbuilder.com. The job offer usually has nothing to do with the job seeker's experience or qualification. Even so, they are offered a job on the spot, serving as a "courier."
They are instructed to receive large checks and deposit them in their personal accounts. They are then instructed to wire the money to an account out of the country. The checks, of course, are counterfeit, but they aren't exposed until after they have been deposited and after the victim has wired the money -- their own money, it turns out -- to the scammer.
"Any employment offered online without a formal interview, no matter where it originates, should be treated with skepticism," said Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe, who investigated one of these scams in 2006. "Terms that seem too good to be true will prove to be just that and may cost you in stolen personal information or money lost."
Unlike the 419 scams, which are perpetrated by out-and-out criminals, negative option schemes are run by otherwise legitimate businesses. Using pop-up ads on the Internet and extremely fine print on the back of sales tickets, consumers completing a transaction with their credit card are offered some free gift or enticement, not realizing their acceptance enrolls them in a travel discount club or affinity group of some kind, or commits them to a year's subscription of a magazine they most likely don't want.
The consumer may think there is no harm in accepting the "free offer," because they don't realize there strings are attached. While laws generally require consumers to make an "informed consent" to purchase, negative option turns the transaction around. It assumes the consumer has made the purchase, unless the consumer "opts out" or takes the "negative option." The volume of complaints to ConsumerAffairs.com on this subject suggests consumers are completely unaware of the transaction.
These scams continue to make our list, year after year, because they continue to ensnare thousands of victims. This is the scam in which the victim receives an email, allegedly from a wealthy, dying person in another country who is desperately trying to get their fortune out of the country. They promise the victim a sizable percentage if they will help.
The victim either has to send money to cover fees or provide their bank account information, or both. The scams are mostly run from Nigeria and get their name because they are covered in section 419 in the Nigerian penal code.
Most people find these emails a big joke, but seemingly sophisticated people have fallen hard for them, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. While the crime mostly goes unpunished, ConsumerAffairs.com reported on British prankster Michael Berry's humorous war on these scams, which actually show as much promise as any countervailing measure. Called "scambaiting," Berry actively engages these scammers, pretending to be a gullible victim, wasting their time and forcing them to perform all types of ridiculous and time consuming tasks.
As the stock market finally rebounded in 2006 after years of near dormancy, scammers stepped up their stock-touting schemes. Sending out millions of spam emails, they would offer a "hot tip" about an obscure company whose stock was selling for a few cents a share. Before sending the email they would buy up millions of shares.
For example, Texhoma Energy was touted in an October spam email, resulting in a significant increase in the stock's value. According to the Chicago Tribune, 53,000 shares of Texhoma stock were traded on October 16. The next day the volume jumped to more than one million. Two days later it jumped to more than five million, as the spam emails began to hit inboxes and prompt victims to place orders.
The scammers, of course, sell at the stock's high point and other investors soon join them as the price begins to fall. Pretty soon the stock is back to selling at a nickel a share and those who jumped on the bandwagon have lost significant amounts of money.
At year's end the National Association of Securities Dealers issued an alert to investors to avoid taking any unsolicited investment advice. A survey of the huge increase in spam email revealed most of it to be touting these near-worthless stocks.
When gasoline prices surged this year, scammers were quick to try and cash in. One company claimed its "special pellets," dropped into the fuel tank, would improve efficiency. The Federal Trade Commission went after one company that claimed its "magnetic device" would increase gas mileage.
"Consumers are looking for ways to increase fuel efficiency and save money at the pump," said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "There are some practical ways to do that, like following the maintenance schedule in your owner's manual, combining errands, and avoiding jack-rabbit starts. The fact is that many products that claim to save fuel don't work, and worse yet, may damage your car and end up costing you more."
This is a particularly vile scam aimed at senior citizens, perhaps the most vulnerable scam victims. An elderly person is targeted by the scammer who calls and says something like, "It's me, grandpa." The elderly person will respond, thinking it's one of their grandchildren.
The scammer then tells a tale of woe, saying they are in trouble and need some money, "and please don't tell mom." The grandparent obligingly sends a few hundred dollars, thinking they're helping a grandchild. Investigators say it works more than you might think.
Again, this scam makes our list this year because of its potential to become much more widespread and to victimize vulnerable people. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently warned consumers about this scam, alerting them to emails or letters that told them they had won tickets to a taping of the talk diva's show in Chicago, or had been offered a tour package that included a taping of the show. The communication asked for sensitive personal information, which, if provided, could allow their identities to be stolen.
In this case, e-mail recipients are asked to submit personal information and told they will receive tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show after verification of certain financial information and/or the wiring of money to an unknown third party. However, according to Harpo Productions, Inc., The Oprah Winfrey Show does not sell tickets or ticket travel packages to fans.
10. craigslist Scam
Though not terribly widespread at the end of 2006, the craigslist scam makes our top ten list because of its potential to wreak harm in the years ahead. Starting this year scammers began taking advantage of the growing popularity of craigslist to victimize people trying to rent their homes or apartments.
The scheme is basically the fake check scam, with a twist. Darryl, of San Diego, told ConsumerAffairs.com that he received almost identical replies when he listed a room for rent on both craigslist and Roommate.com. The replies claimed to be from "Marie," who called herself "a young humanitarian officer."
"Marie" said her employer would be sending Darryl her expense check, which would be for several thousand dollars. Darryl was to deposit it in his account, deduct the rent and deposit, and send the balance back to her.
Fortunately, Darryl saw through the scam. If he had cashed the phony check, it would not have been discovered for a few days. By then he would have sent the scammer a very real check for a $3,000 or more.
"Most people who use craigslist have great stories to tell about their experiences with buyers, sellers, tenants, landlords and such, but we also receive occasional reports of scams and fraud," craigslist warned on its Web site. "We've found that one of the best ways to avoid this problem is to keep all transactions local -- whenever possible, don't do business with anyone who is not in your local area."
If It Sounds Too Good ...
Scams continued to be big business for criminals in 2006 and relatively risk-free as law enforcement appeared unable to keep up. As a result, consumers increasingly were at the mercy of scammers who use cunning, audacity and emerging technology to stay one step ahead of both their victims and the law.
The solution? Keep your wits about you, be skeptical and remember -- trite though it may be -- if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.