Top 10 scams of 2009

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has released its list of top 10 scams and rip-offs from 2009. The list, which is produced annually, is based on the number of times people requested information, made inquiries or reported complaints to the BBB.

Not surprisingly, many of the scams targeted people who were unemployed or suffering under tough economic circumstances. Free trial offers to lock consumers into recurring credit and debit card charges were also widespread on the Internet.

“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 Steve Cox, Council of Better Business Bureaus President and CEO.

Top scams of 2009

So how were we ripped off last year? Here’s a look at the top 10 scams of 2009.

Work-at-home schemes. Last year countless web sites cropped up offering ways to make money from home using Google or Twitter — after ordering a free trial of learning materials. These sites often included the Google or Twitter moniker and logo, leading many people to believe they were getting a job with Google or Twitter — when in, fact, they were being lured into a misleading free-trial offer. The result? They were billed every month for the materials (as well as other mystery charges) that added up to hundreds of dollars. (See Don’t get burned by work-at-home scams.)

More not so “free” trials. Ads offering “free trials” for products such as teeth whiteners, acai anti-aging pills and other miracle supplements were all over the Internet (including on many trusted web sites). Many of these offers falsely claimed to be endorsed by celebrities such as Oprah, Rachel Ray and Doctor Oz. The BBB said that thousands of consumers complained that the ‘free trial’ actually ended up costing them hundreds of dollars, month after month, in recurring credit and debit card charges. (Read more on misleading offers.)

Mortgage foreclosure rescue/debt assistant deals. As many struggled in the downward economy, hucksters offered services to help people save their house from foreclosure or to get them out of credit card debt. Unfortunately, after paying hundreds of dollars up front for the assistance, many did not receive the aid that was promised.

Job hunter scams. Scams targeting job hunters included attempts to gain access to personal financial information (such as bank account number) and even requirements to pay a fee in order to be considered for the job. Another common scam reported to BBB: Job hunters were told to produce a credit report before being considered for a job. But the ‘job offer’ was actually a marketing ploy for online credit monitoring that costs the victim every month until they cancel.

Over-payment scams. These scams targeted small business owners, landlords or individuals with rooms to rent as well as sellers on classifieds or sites like Craigslist. The way it worked: the victim received a cheque, but for more than the amount requested, from a scammer pretending to be a customer, potential renter or interested buyer. The victim was asked to deposit the cheque and wire the extra amount elsewhere. Ultimately though, the cheque was revealed to be a fake — and the victim was really wiring money back to the scammers. (Read more about suspicious cheques.)

Lottery/sweepstakes scam. It’s a scam that has been around for awhile: A letter arrives in the mail pretending to be from Reader’s Digest, Publisher’s Clearing House or a phony foreign lottery claiming the recipient has won millions of dollars. Enclosed with the letter is a cheque — but it represents only a portion of the total winnings. To get the rest, the recipient is asked to wire hundreds of dollars back to the scammers supposedly to cover taxes or some other bogus fee. You know the rest: the victim wires the money, but the prize never arrives.

Mystery shopper offers. In this scheme, people were led to believe they can make extra money by becoming a secret shopper and evaluating the customer service of various 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 was supposed to cover the costs, but ended up being a fake. As a result, the BBB says that many unwitting victims were out of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. (See Secret shoppers left holding the bag.)

Phishing emails/H1N1 spam. Phishing continued to be a problem in 2009, as inventive scamsters attempted to trick people into divulging sensitive financial information or to infect their computers with viruses and malware. Phishing emails typically appear to be from a business, a government agency or official or even a friend. This year spam emails selling wares to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus were particularly rampant. (See The state of scam.)

Robocalls. Having their phone number on the do-not-call list did not help thousands of people put a stop to harassing automated telemarketing calls. 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.

Stimulus/government grant scams. Hucksters began targeting US residents even before President Obama announced the stimulus plan in February. The scam involved offers for worthless assistance and advice on how to get government grants, bombarding consumers online, over the phone and via mail and email.

To learn more, visit the BBB website.