If you believe that humanity is marching ever upward, moving closer to perfection, 2009 was your year. Scam artists grew ever more sophisticated in 2009, moving away from spam emails and fast-talking telemarketers towards a more "corporate" image.
As in so many other fields of endeavor, we can thank the Web for introducing new efficiencies into the business of separating ususpecting consumers from their money. A credible-looking Web site and a few inexpensive Internet ads are all it takes to get started in the theft-by-net business.
This year, our annual review of the Top 10 Scams finds more fast-buck artists functioning like legitimate businesses. The old tried-and-true scams -- advance-fee loans, phony lotteries, "free" cruises -- have by no means disappeared but in 2009, clever marketers added a few new twists.
Who wouldnt want a brighter smile, especially if it were cheap and easy? Or maybe a miracle vitamin supplement. Or a thoroughly cleaned-out colon? These are just some of the questionable products shady operators have used to lure consumers into handing over their credit card information.
One common pitch is for a "free" trial-sized bottle of teeth whitener. The consumer provides credit card information to pay a $2 fee for shipping. That seems like a reasonable request in order to get a free sample, right?
Wrong. Once these people have your credit card information, they can -- and do -- put all kinds of charges on it, claiming the consumer signed up for a membership club or committed to buying a case of the stuff. Chances are theres something buried in fine print that obligates you but regardless, you're stuck with trying to get the charge taken off your card.
Geraldine of Dawsonville, Ga., thought she was ordering a trial of Resveratrol for $1.95 but ended up with a full bottle of the stuff (or at least a full bottle of stuff claiming to be Resveratrol) and no information. Soon after that, another full-size bottle arrived. When she called her credit card company, she made an awful discovery.
"In addition to the $1.95, which had been billed and paid, there were two new unauthorized charges," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There was one charge for $87.62 on 11/4 by Improved Health, and another charge made on 11/11 for $87.62 by Youth Supp. Each charge had a different toll-free number."
Geraldine said she was told that she was on an auto-ship program and every 30 days the company would ship a bottle of the supposed heart-healthy goop to the tune of $87.62 each.
"She said I had 15 days to return the first bottle if I didn't want to stay in the program," Geraldine said. "None of this was communicated on the website where I ordered the sample. She asked if I read the terms and conditions, but I saw nothing there with terms and conditions. I realized immediately that I've been scammed."
Unauthorized charges put on credit cards by scammers is nothing new -- it's been going on for years. But it may have finally reached the point where people in positions of power are taking notice.
In December, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) sent letters to credit card companies asking them to come up with ways to curb aggressive online sales tactics.
In another hopeful sign, Google changed its advertising policy to ban the advertisers instead of the ads. In the past, when Google banned a URL, the advertiser would just create a new URL, shilling the same products. Now, the advertiser is banned and put on notice that it is no longer allowed to sell anything through Google's ad systems.
Many scams depend on desperation to hook victims and perhaps nothing drives people to despair faster than the prospect of losing their home to foreclosure. The continuing recession in the housing market has produced a plague of loan modification and foreclosure rescue scams.
In March, California police arrested two women on fraud charges. California Attorney General Jerry Brown said they "coldly and heartlessly" conned over 160 victims out of thousands of dollars for non-existent loan modification services.
"These scam artists coldly and heartlessly preyed on Californians desperate for help in saving their homes," Brown said. "Homeowners in financial trouble have to be on guard against loan modification fraud, so they don't make a bad situation worse."
The scammers charged desperate homeowners a large, up-front fee and told them not to contact their lender. In these scams, operators promise to either arrange for loan medications or save it from foreclosure. They never do, however, and the homeowner loses their home.
The Obama Administration joined with a number of states during the year to bring charges against companies and individuals accused of fleecing homeowners with phony schemes to save their homes from foreclosure.
"We're enforcing the law against these scam artists," said Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "We're putting others on notice that unless they change their ways, they're next; and we're working with other government agencies, non-profits, and mortgage companies to reach out to our neighbors in distress with the details of how to get help."
If consumers are on the brink of losing their homes to foreclosure, chances are they are also drowning in debt and prime targets for the debt settlement scam. The number of companies claiming they can settle consumers' debts for pennies on the dollar proliferated in the last year, leaving many victims poorer and deeper in debt.
At the end of the year the attorneys general of 40 states asked the FTC to tighten regulation of companies offering debt relief services to consumers. The FTC is currently reviewing a new rule proposal to amend the current Telemarketing Sales Rule.
The move follows a number of individual actions by various states. In October, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Credit Solutions of America and its CEO, Douglas Van Arsdale. The Attorney General's complaint alleges that the company falsely claims that its services can help to reduce consumers' credit card debt by 50 percent.
Madigan's lawsuit contends the company continually fails to negotiate with consumers' creditors even though consumers cease to pay their creditors directly and, instead, make months of upfront payments to CSA. As a result of CSA's failure to take any effective debt settlement action on behalf of consumers, according to Madigan's lawsuit, creditors frequently sue consumers to collect on the outstanding balances.
Madigan said her office has seen a sharp rise in debt- and credit-related consumer complaints. Over the last few years, her office has received more than 12,000 complaints regarding debt and credit issues.
In February, Congress passed and President Obama signed a $700 billion stimulus bill, a massive infusion of federal spending that is designed to stimulate the economy. Almost immediately there appeared Internet ads with the president's smiling face, promising consumers they could cash in and get a share of the loot. Millions of spam emails went out, promising the same thing.
Of course, it was a scam. If you clicked on the ad or on an email link, you were asked for bank account information so that the operators could deposit consumers' share of the stimulus directly into their bank account. Instead, the scammers drained consumers' accounts of money and disappeared.
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."
The Acai Berry Scam is testament to the Oprah Effect. When the Queen of Talk expresses interest in a subject, it creates major buzz. So when Oprah devoted several of her shows to the powers of the acai berry to help control weight, scammers went into overdrive.
While Oprah's enthusiasm was limited to the berry itself, it wasnt long before Internet ads where hawking the benefits of acai berry "supplements," promising all sorts of dubious health benefits. At least one company offered a small bottle for $4.95, just to get the consumers credit card information.
"I ordered AcaiPure from an ad on the Internet and on August 5, 2009, they billed my account $4.95 as agreed," Nancy, of La Mesa, Calif., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "Then on August 19, 2009 they billed me an additional $59.95 without my permission."
With Oprahs picture plastered all over the supplement ads, Winfrey and her company filed trademark infringement suits against 40 Internet marketers of acai berry supplements. For good measure, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued three companies -- Advanced Wellness Research, Crush LLC and Amirouche & Norton, LLC -- over their business practices.
Rising unemployment this year prompted many people to grasp at work-at-home schemes in hopes of producing an income or getting rid of a stressful commute. While the brochures and Web sites made the prospect sound very easy and appealing, it seldom turned out that way.
Bogus work-at-home job offers almost always require the "employee" to deposit checks, money orders, or accept funds wired into his or her own personal bank account or credit card account, then keep a commission and wire the balance somewhere else, often to places outside of the United States.
Some victims of these scams have also been asked to process packages or perform certain tasks, such as stuffing envelopes.
"Whether the task is stuffing envelopes or forwarding checks, the net result is the same for the consumer, who almost always ends up losing a lot of money and getting a lot of trouble for their effort," said Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
In addition to work-at-home jobs, hucksters also pushed work-at-home "business opportunities," which often required victims to put up thousands of dollars to participate. In August, a Florida convicted the president of one of the nation's largest home-based business opportunity schemes, Global Resources. Federal prosecutors say the company fleeced investors to the tune of more than $4 million.
Global promoted business opportunities to consumers across the country through television commercials and other media, touting the profits that could be earned by purchasing a Global distributorship, and urging consumers to call a telephone number that appeared in the ads. Potential purchasers were told that for a purchase price of approximately $15,000, Global would provide three terminals, numerous prepaid cell phones, and advertising material, and that potential purchasers would earn their investment back in approximately six months to a year. None did.
Marketer Kevin Trudeau is always selling something, and in 2009, it was his book "Debt Cures They Dont Want You To Know About", his follow-up to "Natural Cures They Don't Want You To Know About."
Some who bought the book claim it has almost no usable information that can't be easily gleaned from other, free sources. But the overwhelming majority who have written to ConsumerAffairs.com complain about the aggressive sales tactics they encounter when buying the book over the phone.
"I bought a Kevin Trudeau book from TV," Paula, of Susanville, Calif., said. "I am unemployed. He, and his group, keep sneaking $7-$40 charges on my unemployment debit card. I can't even figure where some of the charges are coming from. The phone numbers are not good, or are never answered! I have no grocery money now because of $70 in the last month!"
The book costs $29.95 but Tom, of Butte, Mont., complains the shipping charges amounted to $33. He got off easy. Jacqueline, of York Springs, Pa., said she called to order the book but by the time she got off the phone had been charged $152.85.
Online car sales continue to grow and so, unfortunately, do online car sales scams. These scams work two ways, with scammers posing as both buyer or seller. As buyer, the scammer will send a cashier's check for much more than the sale price, telling the victim to cash it, take out enough to cover transportation costs, then wire the balance back to the "buyer." The cashier's check is fake, but by the time the bank discovers that, the victim has send several thousand dollars to the scammer.
In a new wrinkle in the online car sales scam, the FBI reports scam artists are now posing as members of the United States military in a new ruse to dupe consumers buying vehicles on the Internet. These scammers claim they've either been sent overseas to improve military relations or need to sell their vehicles quickly and cheaply because of upcoming deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, FBI officials say.
"Victims find attractively priced vehicles advertised at different Internet classified ad sites," the agency warns. "Most of the scams include some type of third-party vehicle protection program to ensure a safe transaction."
After consumers receive what the FBI calls "convincing e-mails from the phony vehicle protection program," they are told to send either the full payment, or a percentage of the payment, to the third-party agent using a wire payment service.
"No vehicles are delivered to the victims," the FBI said.
Consumers can protect themselves from getting taken in one of these schemes by doing their homework before buying any vehicles on the Internet, the FBI said. Consumers should also know and follow the rules used by the Internet sites they visit. If someone asks you to break those rules, the FBI warns, that person is likely trying to rip you off.
Many scams target seniors and one of 2009's most senior-targeted scheme was the auto warranty scam. Scammers used telemarketers and direct mail to warn seniors the warranty on their automobile was about to expire, but for a small fee, it could be extended.
"Not only are these telemarketers lying about the consumer's coverage, they are potentially ignoring federal laws such as the Do-Not-Call registry," the Better Business Bureau warned in February.
Also in February, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper obtained a court order against Automotive Protection of New Jersey and its manager Christopher Doyle. The order requires the defendants to stop illegally telemarketing North Carolinians and to quit taking their money.
ConsumerAffairs.com has received numerous complaints about the companies pushing these warranties, including Automotive Warranty Services, Inc.
"I purchased a 3-year extended warranty on my car over the phone from a call from this company. I put $2700 on my discover card and have nor received a policy or any information as to coverage, Nancy, of Clarksville, Tenn., told ConsumerAffairs.com. "I have made numerous attempts to cancel but they say it can't be done because I signed a paper I received in the mail and had to send back so I have nothing to show for my money."
In May a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping telemarketing company Voice Touch, Inc., from making any further auto warranty sales calls in violation of the Do Not Call Registry and other provisions of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the FTC Act. The move follows charges by the FTC that the defendants were operating a massive telemarketing scheme that used random, recorded phone calls to deceive consumers into thinking that their vehicles warranty is about to expire.
In many ways, 2009 was the year of the bank failure, as more than 100 banks failed in the first 11 months of the year. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was so busy closing banks that some email scammers tried to ride its coattails.
By mid-year consumers were finding emails in their inboxes that appeared to be from the FDIC, warning them that their bank had failed and they needed to enter their bank account information to make sure they were insured.
If was, of course, a phishing scam, and quit a few people fell for it before FDIC and the FBI began issuing warnings. FDIC said it never sends out emails asking for sensitive information. In fact, if any email asks you to enter account numbers, user names or passwords, you can be assured its a scam.
So many scams, so little time
There were plenty of other dangerous scams that didn't make our list this year, but are worth a warning. Ponzi schemes remained a consumer threat in 2009, mainly for investors. Following last year's revelation of the Bernie Madoff scandal, several states brought charges against brokers and investment advisors for running Ponzi schemes in which investors lost money. Some of these schemes raked in millions of dollars, and though not as massive as the Madoff scam, left many people with huge losses nonetheless.
Phishing scams also remained a threat with spam email, telemarketers and even cell phone text messages attempting to trick consumers into revealing sensitive financial information.
Scammers even attempted to steal from the dead in 2009. In addition to a highly celebrated case in Chicago, a Grand Rapids, Mich., cemetery operator pleaded guilty to two felonies for embezzling more than $4.2 million in cemetery trust funds from Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Grand Rapids, and failing to properly administer numerous funeral contracts over a three year period.
"Stealing from the dead is a betrayal of the highest order," said Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who brought the case.
What to do
How can you avoid becoming a scam victim in 2010? We recommend keeping an eye on emerging scams through our Scam Alert section, and our daily and weekly newsletters. And remember -- if it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is.
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