HONOLULU (January 13, 2010) – Better Business Bureau today released a list of the top 10 scams and rip-offs of 2009. Not surprisingly, many scams sought to take advantage of people suffering under tough economic circumstances—such as the unemployed. Additionally, free-trial offers that locked consumers into recurring credit and debit card charges were widespread online.
"While many of the scams on the list are perennial problems, some scams were distinct in 2009 because of the economic climate and scammers’ penchant for taking advantage of the top headlines," said Dwight Kealoha, CEO of Hawaii’s BBB. "Some scams plagued different parts of the country more than others. For example, in places particularly hit by the housing crisis, bogus offers for foreclosure rescue or debt assistance ran rampant."
Following, in no particular order, is BBB’s list of top scams and rip-offs that took advantage of consumers and small business owners across the U.S. in 2009:
1. "Free" Trial Offers for Health Products – 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 an endorsement by Oprah, Rachel Ray and Doctor Oz. Thousands of consumers complained to BBB that the free trial actually cost them as much as hundreds of dollars, month after month.
2. Government Program 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.
3. Robocalls – Having their phone numbers 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.
4. Lottery/Sweepstakes Scam – Someone receives a letter in the mail claiming to be from Reader’s Digest, Publisher’s Clearing House, or a foreign lottery. Along with news that he or she has won millions, the letter comes with a check that covers only a portion of the total winnings. In order to get the full prize money, the recipient is instructed to deposit the check and then wire hundreds of dollars back, supposedly to cover taxes or some other bogus fee. The victim wires the money, but the check bounces and the prize never arrives.
5. Employment Scams –Scams targeting job hunters vary, but most include attempts to access personal information such as bank account or social security numbers, and charge a fee to even be considered for the job. Another common job-hunting scam reported to BBB was prospective employers telling applicants 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 charges the victim every month until they cancel.
6. Google Work from Home Scam – In 2009, countless Web sites cropped up with claims that you could learn how to make money from home using Google or Twitter, and offered a free trial of training materials. The Web sites often included the Google or Twitter name and logo. As a result, many people who complained to BBB thought they were getting a job with those companies when they were actually being lured into another misleading free-trial offer. Victims were billed every month for the materials and other mystery charges that added up to hundreds of dollars.
7. Mortgage Foreclosure Rescue/Debt Assistance – Many families have struggled in the down economy and hucksters offer to help them save their house from foreclosure or help them get out of credit card debt. Unfortunately, victims are paying hundreds of dollars up front for help they desperately need but ultimately never receive.
8. Mystery Shopping – Consumers across the country thought that they could make some extra money by becoming a secret shopper and evaluating customer service at various stores and money wiring services such as Western Union or MoneyGram. A seemingly valid check is provided to cover the costs, but ends up being a fake. The victim is out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
9. Over-Payment Scams –
Over-payment scams often target small business owners, landlords or individuals looking to rent, and sellers using classified ads or sites like Craigslist. The scammer pretends to be a customer, possible renter or interested buyer who sends a check for more than the amount requested and asks the victim to wire the extra money elsewhere, such as to a shipping company. Ultimately though, the check is fake and the victim is really wiring money back to the scammers.
10. Phishing Scams– Fraudulent e-mails are a constant problem and take various forms, such as appearing to be from a business, government agency, bank or even a friend. Whatever the setup, phishing e-mails are designed to trick victims into divulging personal information, or to infect the victim’s computer with viruses and malicious software. In addition to phishing e-mails, spam e-mail offering products to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus were particularly rampant in 2009.
Always research a business with BBB before you sign any contracts or hand over any money. Consumers or business owners victimized by a scam should report it to Hawaii’s BBB or file a complaint online at www.bbb.org.