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10 most-creative swindles from today's clever cons

There's a sucker born every minute. -- Mountebank David Hannum
You can't cheat an honest man. -- W.C. Fields

America is the land of scams and swindlesFrom the bogus lotto con in the Northeast to the fake Zuni jewelry of the Southwest, from the phony slave reparations of the Southeast to the perpetual motion machines of the Northwest, America is awash in a sea of scams.

Nothing sparks the imagination of the swindler, the con man, the bunco artist and the four-flusher quite like economic prosperity.

These are good times indeed, and no less so for crooks.

According to the National Consumers League's National Fraud Information Center, crooked telemarketers remain the major perpetrators of consumer fraud, with more than 14,000 illegal scams costing Americans more than $40 billion annually. More than half of all consumer fraud involves the telephone. More than a third of the victims are elderly.

The Internet is rapidly catching up to the phone as a font of fraud. This year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection and more than 240 law enforcement agencies banded together to combat the growing "dot-con" problem. Any scam that can be pulled over the phone can be done online, often faster and cheaper.

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From sea to shining sea, here's a sampling of the more creative cons that crooks have cooked up to swindle you out of your money.

Arizona "Hot Pants 2000"
Lending new dimension to the term hot pants, three New York companies were sent packing recently with their line of neoprene Lipo Slim briefs, despite their contention that the magical pants "dissolve fat and hydric deposits" from one's backside whilst sitting on it. Arizona and nine other states fined the companies $100,000 and told them to take their muscle-contracting Elysee Electro slimming belts along with them. Neither device was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees all medical machines.

Unfriendly neighbors
The FTC, New England states and Canadian authorities cracked down recently on across-the-border boiler rooms that have bilked big bucks from us trusting Yanks. The pitch is simple: You've won the Canadian lottery! But you need to act fast and send money to cover the taxes and expenses or you'll lose out. Recently, one Maine resident sent $1,500 to Westmont, Quebec, and another sent $1,000 to Montreal. When they called to ask why their windfall had not arrived, a recorded message informed them that the company had moved.

Dirty phone trick No. 1
If you receive an urgent phone message or page from an 809 area code, do not return the call, say dozens of Mississippians who've been burned by this scam. Unless you have loved ones in the Caribbean, chances are you're being scammed for long distance charges, often in excess of $100. The cons use the 809 pay-per-call area code to skirt 900 blocking -- and U.S. authorities.

Lightning strikes twice
Can you tell if your lightning rods are working? Bunco artists in Wisconsin are betting you can't. They show up at rural homes and farms offering a free inspection, find your home and barn in danger (naturally), give a low, verbal estimate, then install a lousy system at twice what they quoted you. Can lightning strike twice? Yah, sure, you betcha. Those who pay for the work often move to the top of the list of next year's suckers.

"I was Hopi-ng it was Zuni"
Authentic Native American artwork, a booming business in New Mexico, is also a favorite of con artists. The state recently threw the book at a Santa Fe jewelry dealer for selling necklaces made by "Allen" Quandelacy. The last name is a famous Zuni family, but nobody knew an Allen. Or perhaps he was banished for working in that exciting new medium -- plastic.

First comes love, then comes ...
... Social Security fraud, of course. Nebraska recently reminded brides and new parents to beware of an official-looking document in the mail offering to notify Social Security of your new married name or to obtain a Social Security card for your baby, for a fee. Those services are available free at your local Social Security Administration office. The con artists may also intend to steal your identity by forging your ID in order to tap your bank account or credit line.

The Nigerian Connection, Part II
A favorite scam from the '80s is back and Illinois has it. In the Nigerian scam, a Nigerian "official" typically enlists your help to transfer funds from Nigeria into your bank account for him. Naturally, he offers to pay you for your kindness, but first he'll need your account information or some money to cover the transfer fees. Once he has your money, you've seen the last of your African friend.

How does that machine work again?
Oregon officials pulled the plug on a New Jersey entrepreneur who sought to sell a "free electricity" device and $275 shares in his revolutionary technology. Quoting Attorney General Hardy Myers, "Not only did this energy-generating device sound suspiciously like a perpetual motion machine but the investment certificates were illegal securities." OK, but did it work?

Regardless of race, creed or color
A variation on the reparations for descendents of slaves scam that was popular a few years ago, a Miami woman claimed that, for a $100 fee, her "professional, licensed company" would secure $40,000 in tax credits for African-Americans. The woman cautioned against contacting the Internal Revenue Service because "they do not want to be flooded with calls nor do they want the tax credit advertised to the general public."

Dirty phone trick No. 2
Prison inmates are believed to be posing as long distance line technicians in the latest phone scam in Vermont. The bogus line tech claims to be running a test and asks you to press the numbers 9, 0 and the pound sign (#), then hang up. According to the phone company, the 90# combination gives the caller access to your line, permitting him or her to place a long distance call anywhere in the world at your expense.

How to outsmart the cons
Don't get conned. There is plenty of information available to keep you ahead of the latest scams.

The Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection and the National Consumers League's National Fraud Information Center are good places to start.

For the latest scams in your area, check out the NFIC's Links page to find the Web site for your state's attorney general. For general defensive advice, read the online version of the Consumer Action Handbook from the Federal Consumer Information Center.

And remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Florida

-- Updated: April 9, 2003

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See Also
Most common methods:
Top 10 ways Americans get conned
Consumers sue over changes in 'fixed' rates
Watch out for the "guaranteed credit card" scam

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