If you've spent any time online, you've seen the ads featuring President Obama's smiling face and the headline that you too can get a piece of the government's $700 billion stimulus. The ads say the government is handing out free money for all manner of purposes.
The Federal Trade Commission is warning consumers its all a scam, which manifests itself in different forms.
Right now, on the Web and in e-mail, scammers are telling consumers they can help them qualify for a payment from the economic stimulus package. All they have to do is provide a little information or a small payment.
E-mail messages may ask for bank account information so that the operators can deposit consumers' share of the stimulus directly into their bank account. Instead, the scammers drain consumers' accounts of money and disappear.
A bogus e-mail may appear to be from government agencies and ask for information to "verify" that you qualify for a payment. The scammers use that information to commit identity theft. Some e-mail scams don't ask for information, but provide links to find out how to qualify for funds. By clicking on the links, consumers have downloaded malicious software or spyware that can be used to make them a victim of identity theft.
"Web sites may advertise that they can help you get money from the stimulus fund. Many use deceptive names or images of President Obama and Vice-President Biden to suggest they are legitimate. They're not," said Eileen Harrington, Acting Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Don't fall for it. If you do, you'll get scammed."
Some sites suggest that for a small sum of money — as little as $1.99 in some cases — consumers can get a list of economic stimulus grants they can apply for. But two things can happen: the number of the credit card the consumer uses to pay the fee can fall into the hands of scam artists, or the $1.99 can be the down payment on a "negative option" agreement that may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars if the consumer does not cancel.
"Consumers who may already have fallen for these scams should carefully check their credit card bills for unauthorized charges and report the scam to the FTC," Harrington said.