10 most-creative swindles from today's
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.
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.
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.
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
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
... 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,
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
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
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
Dirty phone trick No.
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
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