smart spending

5 scams spread like a virus in recession

Highlights
  • Internet scammers are using President Barack Obama's mug to mask their scheme.
  • Treat companies that claim to improve FICO scores with skepticism.
  • Don't fall for the cash-for-gold scam. You'll never get the true value.

Scam artists look more legitimate than ever.

They follow headlines about financial bailouts, stimulus packages and a popular president into your pocketbook. And they're taking advantage of people's need for cash in a recession as well as the latest social media trends.

However, the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," still applies.

Here are some new scams you might have missed and how they work, as well as suggestions on how to avoid them.

1. Government grants scam.

Pop-ups and ads on the Internet depicting President Barack Obama holding a check appear to lend some credence to the government grant scams. The government's stimulus package and bailouts also fuel the false impression that money's available for the asking.

These Web sites "guarantee" you'll get a grant, says Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau in Charlotte, N.C. In this scam, you must pay an application or processing fee, usually between $500 and $1,000. Once you send the fee, the scammer sends you applications and forms that are printed from government Web sites. In some cases, the scammer keeps your money and doesn't give you anything.

How to avoid this scam: Government grants are available, but you don't have to pay in advance to apply for them.

"Many people don't have a deep awareness of how grants work," says Bartholomy. So they believe they really are guaranteed to receive a certain sum of money.

"We are receiving dozens of calls each day about this scam, and the guarantees appear to be the most effective trigger for the scammers," says Bartholomy. "Once we talk with the consumer and point out the lies behind this ploy, he begins to understand it's not a legitimate opportunity."

Another expert on scams, Christine Durst, CEO of Staffcentrix, a training and development firm for virtual careers in Woodstock, Conn., says you should always read the fine print on a grant opportunity.

"You may be signing up for a subscription service that bills you monthly," says Durst. "Also, run a Google search with the name of the company plus (the word) 'scams' and see what that reveals."

2. Instant credit repair.

It's no secret that credit is tight right now and getting approved for a loan is much more difficult than it was two years ago. So when these perpetrators say they can raise your FICO score, the nation's most widely used credit score, that's tempting.

"This is very appealing to someone who has just been turned down for a car loan," says Bartholomy.

Here's how the scam works. A victim who's looking to fix his or her credit receives an ad in the mail or sees one in the newspaper and calls about the service. The company offers to order the victim's credit report and challenge every negative item, and those items will instantly be removed. The credit repair company charges either a per-item or flat fee but promises satisfaction, or you get your money back.

"A month after the fraudulent company has been paid, the victim will see that these negative items have been challenged and removed from his credit report," says Bartholomy. "But that is only temporarily. As soon as the negative item is verified as authentic, it's put back on the credit report."

Besides paying for nothing, the victim is vulnerable to identity theft from the scammers, Bartholomy says.

How to avoid this scam: Anyone can receive a free credit report once a year from each reporting agency -- Equifax, TransUnion and Experian -- at Annualcreditreport.com. So you can access your report three times a year and challenge inaccurate items yourself for free.

"Instant" credit repair isn't a legitimate option, and nobody can fix your credit but you, Bartholomy says.

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3. Cash-for-gold scam.

Offers abound to pay you for your unwantedgold, silveror platinum -- usually jewelry. You're told to place it in an envelope provided by the company and mail it in. In return, the company says it will send you the cash value of the gold within 24 hours.

Durst says these companies use the calendar against you. They claim it takes seven to 10 days to receive your jewelry, when actually it takes only three to four days.

"This gives them time to assess the value of the gold and, in doing so, they date and cut a check immediately, usually for an amount that the customer isn't happy with," says Durst. "Then, the check isn't mailed for several days."

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