5 scams spread like a virus in recession

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

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.

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.”

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.