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Scariest scams of the year

You might scream at werewolf and vampire films, but the creepiest creatures can be real-life monsters -- financial con artists. These criminals can steal your cash, your identity, and leave years of trouble for you to clean up.

Here are the five scariest, real-life crimes from the past year. Watch out so they don't get you.

Boo! I'm you!
What's the scariest scam that could happen to you? Ask Derek Bond and Malcolm Byrd. Bond, a 72-year-old British man, was imprisoned for two weeks in South Africa last February after the FBI wrongly identified him as a wanted fugitive. He was freed when the real fugitive was arrested in Las Vegas. The U.S. Attorney's Office believes this crook had been using Bond's identity as far back as 1989.

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Byrd, of Janesville, Wis., has been arrested several times, has had his driver's license revoked twice, lost pay while sitting in jail, lost a job and almost had his children taken away by child protective services -- all because a criminal continues to use his identity.

The Federal Trade Commission says identity theft is growing at an alarming rate, with approximately 10 million victims in 2002.

Identity theft is scary, but there are plenty other scary scams out there. Read on for more.

Out of work, into a scam
Are you out of work? You're not alone. You, and many others are looking for a job. Guess who's looking for you -- scammers. The work-at-home scam is an old one that's taken on new life with the dawn of e-mail. You should immediately delete e-mail messages from anyone who promises lots of money for little work that requires no experience. While there are companies that allow their employees to work from home, they require job skills and interviews, just like regular jobs. Work-at-home scammers will ask you to purchase supplies and equipment from them to perform the "job." That's how they make their money. You will lose -- not make -- money.

That's a scary prospect for someone with little or no income.

Targeting troops' family members
Would you pay $100 a month to get daily updates on a family member who is serving in the military? Many families would, but that's not a service the government is selling. It's a scam thought up by con artists.

Jerry Maness of Service, Ala., has a nephew named William who is serving in the Navy. Maness received a call in early April from a man who seemed to think he was talking to William's father -- not his uncle. The caller promised that for $100 a month, his company would give Maness a daily update on William's status. The man asked for Maness's credit card number. Maness didn't fall for it. He called the sheriff.

This isn't the only scam targeting military families, but it's one of the sickest. It's as if, when hearing the reports of the Americans killed in the Middle East, the cons are thinking, "What's in it for me?"

Con artists prey on stressed-out debtors
California college student Veronica Washington thought she was paying off her debt on a canceled Visa card and that the company would issue her a new Visa card. Instead she became a victim of the advance-fee scam.

"A company called Total Benefits called my cell phone. I was caught off guard," said Washington. "She (the caller) was going so fast. She kept saying, 'We're helping people rebuild their credit status with Visa.'

"I had a Visa, so I asked, 'Which Visa company?' She rattled off a list of banks. One of them was the one I had a credit card with in the past. I thought, 'I do need to pay that one off.'"

Though Washington thought she was paying off her debt and getting a new credit card, she actually gave her money to con artists.

It's one of the nation's top telemarketing scams, and con artists rake in millions of dollars each year from unsuspecting students, the elderly, the unemployed, the working poor or people in need of fast money for emergencies.

In this scam, con artists call the would-be victims using "sucker lists" -- names and phone numbers of potential victims -- or they lure victims with ads on the Internet, television or newspapers, promising loans for people with bad or no credit. They use legitimate-sounding company names and offer credit cards, loans or debt relief, but at a price -- anywhere from $45 to several hundreds of dollars. Victims are told they are paying for processing fees or credit checks.

What do the victims get in return for these fees?

"In these cases, nobody ever gets a credit card," says Steven Baker, Midwest Regional director of the FTC. "They get lists of names or cards that are good only for that company's items. They give no credit whatsoever."

The rise of phishing
There's a new scam technique called "phishing," as in "fishing for information," but with a "ph," as in "phony."

What happens is that a phisher sends out a legitimate-looking e-mail that claims to be from a company the person does business with. The e-mail reports an account error, possible fraud or other problem with the account. Some Bankrate.com readers have reported phishing e-mails that say their credit card has been charged for pornography and they need to verify the information.

Potential victims are asked to click on a link in the e-mail and enter account information on the linked Web site. The link takes them to a phony Web site that gathers the information which could be used to drain their bank accounts, charge up their credit cards and steal their respective identities.

By now, you should know: Never give out your personal information on the Web -- especially if you can't be sure of the sender.

-- Posted: Oct. 20, 2003
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See Also
Financial thugs' favorite tricks
What to do if your identity is stolen
My worst credit mistake
Financial advice glossary
More advice stories

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