We’re celebrating our Centennial this year at the Better Business Bureau, which means we’ve been monitoring the marketplace for 100 years. In that time, we’ve seen more than our share of scams. In fact, the need for an organization to alert the public to scams is what led to the founding of the BBB (right here in the Twin Cities!). Honest business owners were tired of shady businesses and operators making false and misleading claims in their advertisements, so they banded together to investigate these claims and publicize their findings. Our mission has expanded greatly throughout the years, but we continue to investigate and help keep the public informed about scams to this day. The following is a list of scams that have – regrettably – stood the test of time, victimized countless consumers through the years and/or had widespread impact in their brief histories. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you…our Centennial Scam Hall of Shame!
1.) Bogus Health Products. The “granddaddy” of all other scams. Since the 1800s scammers have tried to peddle various elixirs and snake oils with claims to cure any and every malady, from balding to arthritis. The best way to protect yourself against this scam is to apply common sense and to talk to your doctor before using any “new” health product – especially ones that make outrageous claims.
2.) Advance Fee Loans – This scam has plagued consumers for years, and works like this: people in desperate financial straits search the Internet for a lender that will help them. Instead, they find fraudulent websites promising easy credit and loans in exchange for payments upfront ranging from several hundred to thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, these offers are bogus; people never receive their loans and wind up in worse financial shape than they were before. If a company asks you for payment upfront before they’ll give you a loan, they are not a legitimate company and you will not receive your loan.
3.) The Nigerian Scam – Circulating since the 1980s, the Nigerian Scam has defrauded scores of U.S. consumers. Though there are many variations of this scheme, we have detected a common pattern: people are contacted (usually via email) and told a wealthy foreign relative has died or a rich businessperson is trying to get funds out of a war-torn region. Scam artists make wild promises of untold riches, but then inform you that to claim your funds you’ll have to give them money upfront. In some cases, they request payment via wire transfer; in others, a fake check is sent to the victim, who is told to cash it and then wire a portion (or all) of those funds back to the scammers. However, the checks invariably bounce and people are out the money they sent to the scammers.
4.) The Grandparent Scam – This is a newer scam, but it’s been so successful we felt it warranted inclusion in the Scam Hall of Shame. The grandparent scam works like this: victims receive a call from someone claiming to be a relative (usually a grandchild) in distress. Often, the scammers will say they’re in some kind of legal trouble in a foreign country and don’t want to have to tell their parents. Victims are then told to wire money to the police station to clear the matter up. Unfortunately, victims soon discover their loved ones were never in another country and they’re out whatever money they wired away. The best defense against this scam is to remain calm. If someone calls you and says, “Grandpa (or grandma), it’s me,” don’t offer any information (Timmy?). Instead, make them fill in the blanks – and even if they have information about your loved ones, take time to verify their story. Don’t be pressured. Scam artists are very good at pushing buttons and they know most grandparents dote on their grandchildren and would do anything for them. Don’t let your kind-hearted nature open the door for scammers.
5.) Foreign lotteries or sweepstakes: Another (un)worthy entry into our Scam Hall of Shame, lottery/sweepstake scams rip countless people off every single year. Usually, people receive winning notifications via email, fax, letter or phone call. The notifications sent out through the mail usually contain a check which is supposed to cover taxes or fees (or insurance) on the winnings. People are urged to cash the checks and wire back the funds to claim their prizes. However, they soon discover the checks are no good and they’re out whatever money they were convinced to send. Remember, you can’t win contests you don’t enter, and it’s illegal for U.S. citizens to enter foreign sweepstakes or lotteries. If you have to pay to claim your prize, you haven’t won anything.
6.) Overpayment Scams – This is a scam that’s evolved through the years, but the basics remain the same. People who advertise items in the classifieds or on craigslist receive contact from someone (usually via email) expressing interest in the item. These mystery buyers will often use poor grammar and usually want the item to be delivered through a shipper. Per the name of the scam, they will offer to overpay on the cost of the item and then ask the seller to wire back the excess funds after the check is deposited. To steer clear of this scam, always know who you’re dealing with and never accept a check for more than the selling price. NEVER agree to wire back funds to a buyer.
7.) Charity Scams: The lowest of the low. These scams take advantage of people’s generosity and steal money from those who need it most. Usually these fraudulent solicitations come over the phone with scammers pretending to be affiliated with legitimate charities. Other common scams involve bogus websites created to look official and fool people into providing credit card numbers. To avoid this scam, cut out the middleman and go directly to a charity’s website. . Always make sure you know who you’re dealing with. You can investigate charities online at www.bbb.org/us/charity.
8.) Employment/Mystery Shopping Scams: Employment scams never go out of season and can be found online, in the classifieds and on websites like Craigslist and Monster.com. Sometimes you’ll find them in your email inbox! Red flags to watch for include:
- Requests for an upfront fee.
- Unsolicited job offers or employment offers that promise exorbitant pay for working just a few hours a day or from your home.
- “Companies” that seek sensitive personal or financial information for credit or background checks.
Regardless of the reason or excuse given by the employer, a job applicant should never give out his or her Social Security or bank account numbers over the phone or e-mail.
Mystery Shopping Scams lure unsuspecting victims by sending them checks for anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars. The checks look authentic and come with letters providing instructions on what to do with the money once the checks are deposited. This generally involves wiring some of the funds back to your “employer.” Unfortunately, these checks turn out to be bogus and people are out whatever money they spent performing their supposed mystery shopping duties as well as the money they sent back to the scammers. Anytime you receive a check upfront or are asked to wire funds back to the sender, you’re dealing with scammers.
9) Phishing: Phishing is when scammers, masquerading as a trustworthy entity (such as a bank or credit card company), send businesses and consumers official-looking emails in an effort to get them to reveal passwords, account numbers or sensitive private data. If you get an email or pop-up message that asks for personal or financial information, do not reply. And don’t click on the link in the message, either. Legitimate companies don’t ask for this information via email. If you are concerned about your account, contact the organization mentioned in the email using a telephone number you know to be genuine, or open a new Internet browser session and type in the company’s correct Web address. Don’t cut and paste the link from the message into your Internet browser — phishers can make links look like they go to one place, but actually send you to a different site. Use regularly updated anti-virus and anti-spyware software, as well as a firewall.
10) SMiShing: Similar to phishing, smishing uses cell phone text messages to deliver the “bait” to get people to divulge their personal information. The messages generally claim there’s a problem with the recipient’s debit cards, credit cards or bank accounts, and that the accounts in question have been frozen. People are then prompted to call a toll-free number, where they’re instructed to provide sensitive personal or financial information, opening the door to identity theft and/or fraud. To avoid smishing scams, consumers are advised to never provide personal or financial information to unknown parties, and never click on any embedded Internet links in unsolicited text messages.
There you have it: our Centennial Scam Hall of Shame. Though there are other scams we could add to this list, these are the ones which we feel have done the most damage and still pose the greatest threat to consumers today. The scams on this list show how creative and motivated scammers are. Still, by doing your research at BBB.org and by keeping up with updates and alerts from your BBB you can avoid being added to their roster of victims.