The Better Business Bureau released a list of the top 10 scams and rip-offs of 2009. Not surprisingly, many scams sought to take advantage of people who were suffering under tough economic circumstances, such as the unemployed. Additionally, the use of free-trial offers to lock consumers into recurring credit and debit card charges was 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 Kelvin Collins, President/CEO of the BBB of Central Georgia and the CSRA. "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. 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 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. 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.
3. Robocalls - Owning a cell phone or having their phone number on the do-not-call list did not help thousands of people across the US 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 - 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Mortgage Foreclosure Rescue/Debt Assistance - Many families are struggling in the current economy and hucksters are offering 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 the assistance 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 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 real looking check is supposed 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 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.
10. Phishing e-mails/H1N1 spam - A perennial problem, phishing e-mails pop up in inboxes and can take various forms such as appearing to be from a business, a government agency or official 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.
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.