At least one group is finding the recession to be a boom time: Fraudsters. The Better Business Bureau reports an uptick in complaints about scams, especially those relating to the stimulus package and mystery shopping. "There are definitely going to be more rip-offs because of the economy," says Ed Magedson, founder of the Tempe, Arizona-based Ripoff Report.
Here are five scams you could be falling for:
Paying for information on how to get money from the stimulus package. Almost as soon as the stimulus package was signed into law, scam artists created blogs and websites purporting to help people receive grants from the bill, according to the Better Business Bureau. Blogs that were set up to look like someone's personal story on how they received thousands of dollars of stimulus money directed visitors to websites that charged as much as $69.95 per month for information.
The Better Business Bureau, which has already received hundreds of complaints on stimulus-related scams, warns consumers off any website claiming to help them win federal grant money, and to avoid paying any money for information. The Federal Trade Commission also issued a warning after it noticed websites using images of President Obama in an effort to look official. Government websites, which always end in ".gov," such as www.grants.gov, www.recovery.gov, and www.govbenefits.gov, provide information on the stimulus package and government grants for free.
Getting hired to be a mystery shopper by a fraudulent company. Becoming a mystery shopper sounds like the perfect job, paying you to do what you're already doing. Because so many people are out of work, interest in mystery shopping has grown, says Alison Southwick of the Better Business Bureau. So have the scams associated with it.
Here's how the typical mystery shopping scam works: You are offering a few hundred dollars to become a mystery shopper. The company sends a check for $3,000 to be deposited in your bank account. You're told to spend part of it at various stores, to keep $300 as payment, and to wire the rest—often a couple thousand dollars—back to the company, which is frequently based in Canada. Then, after wiring away that money, it turns out the original check was fake, and you have just given away thousands of dollars to a scam artist.
Of course, mystery shopping is also a legitimate activity. To tell the real offers from the fakes, Southwick recommends sticking with one basic rule: Never wire money to anyone. That is how most victims get tripped up. Also, she adds, mystery shopping usually pays around $20 per assignment, or perhaps a free lunch. Offers of more money, in the hundreds of dollars, should raise a red flag. The Mystery Shopping Providers Association, an industry group, adds that shoppers never have to pay a fee to become a mystery shopper. It lists legitimate opportunities on its website, www.mysteryshop.org/shoppers.
[Read "Beware the Latest Credit Card Scam."]
Paying an illegitimate company to modify your mortgage. With thousands of homeowners looking for mortgage relief, Magedson says that an increasing number of companies are offering mortgage modifications for upfront fees. "They're slick sales people, taking these fees upfront and then doing nothing," he says. If any company asks for an upfront payment, Magedson recommends walking away.
Believing that you won money in the form of a grant or lottery in the mail. The old "You are a winner" trick might pre-date the Internet, but it's still going strong; in fact, says Magedson, he calls it one of the most popular scams today.
Typically, consumers receive mail that says they've won something, usually the lottery, sweepstakes, a grant, or some other form of money. Then, the company sends a check with instructions to deposit the money and then pays taxes on it by wiring money into an account. If the check is for $5,000, they might pay $2,300 in taxes.
Of course, as with the mystery shopping scam, the check turns out to be bogus and the consumer just lost the wired money. "Consumers should know that nobody's picking them out. Nobody would give them money," says Magedson. In other words, any offer that sounds too good to be true probably is.
Accepting phone calls from telemarketers asking for personal information. If you get a call from your credit card company informing you that your account has been flagged because of suspicious activity, be skeptical. A current scam works like this: A fraudster, claiming to be from the security department of a credit card company, tells the consumer he is checking unusual account activity. He may even offer a badge number. Then, he tells the consumer that a fake purchase, such as an $800 television from Best Buy, has been made on the card.
When the consumer says he did not make that purchase, the scammer explains that he is starting a fraud investigation and gives the consumer a "confirmation" number. He says he needs to verify that the consumer has the credit card and asks for the three numbers on the back of the card, known as the card identification number. He may already have the consumer's address and card number, and that verification code lets the fraudster ring up charges on the card.
Discover spokesman Matthew Towson, who says he is familiar with the scam, says that card companies, including Discover, will never ask for a consumer's card identification number. Instead, they use security questions, such as mother's maiden name or the cardholder's high school. Consumers are not usually asked for card identification numbers unless they are making purchases over the phone or the Internet. Being asked for it in other situations is a tip-off to fraud.
If you get a call from someone claiming to be from your credit card company, he recommends hanging up and calling the company yourself, using the number listed on the back of your card. That way, you'll know whom you're talking to.
Corrected on 3/11/09: An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect Web address. The correct address is www.govbenefits.gov.