smart spending

5 scams spread like a virus in recession

When the check is finally sent, it's too late to return it. By the fraudulent company's rules, it must be sent back within 10 days of the date on the check. Of course, reaching customer service to complain is next to impossible. When customers do finally get through, they have their own meltdown because their gold has already been melted down.

And if you do get a check for your gold, it's only for a fraction of what it's worth.

How to avoid this scam: If you have any one-of-a-kind heirlooms or antique jewelry, you should take them to a reputable jeweler or antique dealer for an appraisal, Durst says.

"Those unique pieces may be worth considerably more than their weight in gold," Durst says.

Any other gold could be taken to your local pawnshop or jeweler. Durst suggests going to several to find the one that will pay you the most.

4. Mystery shopping scam.

The victim answers a newspaper or Internet ad asking for mystery shoppers. He or she is sent a training assignment and a cashier's check for a few thousand dollars. The assignment letter tells the mystery shopper to cash the check at the bank, go to a certain retail store and write a report on the cleanliness and service.

The shopper is told to keep $50 for use on the mystery shopping spree and for the shopper's fee, and to wire the remainder of the funds to an address supplied by the supposed mystery shopping company.

"These are very real-looking checks," says Bartholomy. "Some even have watermarks and holograms."

The shopper is told to complete the assignment within two or three days. This urgency keeps the victim from discovering that the check is counterfeit until it's too late. Once the check is cashed, the victim becomes the responsible party. Unless the victim keeps a hefty checking account balance, personal checks will start bouncing.

How to avoid this scam: If you receive a check to mystery shop, it won't be legitimate, Bartholomy says. Bona fide mystery shopping companies don't send checks before the work is done. You can look up the company name at the Better Business Bureau. Bartholomy warns that these companies change names frequently, so you may find no report. Don't let that give you a false sense of security.

"You should verify that the company is a member of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which only represents legitimate mystery shopping companies," says John Swinburn, executive director of the association in Dallas.

Unfortunately, some of the scammers use names of legitimate mystery shopping companies. Make sure the company is on the association's Web site and that the contact information is the same.

5. Social networking scams.

In this, someone builds a friendship with you on a social networking Web site such as Facebook or MySpace, becoming your "online friend."

"Once he has your trust and confidence, he runs into trouble and needs your help or, more specifically, your financial assistance," says Durst.

In another version of this scam, a person may pose as a relative who needs financial help.

The scammer may say he will lose his home or car unless he gets some money quickly. Or he might say he's in jail. Other perpetrators send you a check and ask you to wire the funds to a relative who lives in your country, saying it's too difficult to do it from his own country.

"In both cases, you end up out of luck," says Durst. "With the first scenario, the 'friend' will disappear with your money. And in the second scenario, the check you deposited in your account in order to wire the funds will bounce, leaving you to repay the bank."

How to avoid this scam: Be careful about giving out too much personal information online, says Durst.

If you're contacted to "bail someone out" and aren't sure if that person is who he or she claims to be, ask personal questions that only the actual person could answer. Or contact the person that the scammer is claiming to be. Finally, you could call the authorities that are supposed to be holding him.

"If you call your grandson, and he doesn't know anything about being jailed in Canada, you know you're being bamboozled," Durst says.

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