The letter contained a check so real-looking, the 78-year-old retiree says, that she showed it to her bank. The letter instructed Brown to deposit the $4,850 check and then return $4,100 to cover the processing fee for her sweepstakes winnings. Once she did so, the letter promised, a courier would deliver her $450,000 winnings.
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"I would never have cashed it," says Brown, who wants to alert other seniors to the fraud. "They seemed to prey on older people."
Lottery and sweepstakes schemes are among the oldest ways to bilk consumers, but con artists have lots of tricks to get their hands on our money. Sometimes they recycle frauds, changing them just enough to fool a new crop of victims. And often they are quick to pounce on our latest concerns and fears. Fake charities, for instance, pop up to solicit "donations" as soon as there's a national disaster, and employment schemes abound now because so many jobless workers are desperate for a paycheck.
I could fill an entire Sunday newspaper with all the scams being perpetrated, but instead I asked regulators and consumer advocates to point out the frauds that are popular now.
In Maryland, fake checks are plentiful.
"It's huge, it's huge," says Jody Thomas, vice president of communication for the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. The BBB gets complaints about them nearly every day, she says.
Making matters worse for the consumer, the quality of fake checks is better than ever.
Sid Kirchheimer, a consumer protection reporter for the AARP Bulletin who writes a weekly "Scam Alert" column, says the checks look so authentic that even savvy bank officials can't always spot the fakes.
When you deposit a bogus check, you will see the money in your account in a short amount of time, Kirchheimer says. You might then assume it's safe to spend the money or send a portion of it to the person who sent you the check in the first place. But it can take the bank up to two weeks to discover the fraud, Kirchheimer says — and you will have to return any of the money you spent.
A check is likely fraudulent, Kirchheimer says, if it has no bank logo, no bank address, no check number, and no routing number or one with fewer than nine digits
Con artists also have used the weak economy to generate schemes.
"Work-at-home opportunities are a big problem, especially in the economic environment we have now," says Roberto Anguizola, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices.
The FTC recently shut down an operation that promised to show consumers the secret of making big money selling domain names, he says. The company charged $39.95 a month, he says, plus added other poorly disclosed fees on top.
"It was completely bogus," Anguizola says. "You should never have to pay someone else to get a job."
Con artists are also targeting consumers with no credit or poor credit, Anguizola says. For example, he says, the FTC pursued one company that appeared to be offering credit to consumers, when in reality it sold a shopping club membership for $15.95 a month.
Con artists don't stop for the holiday season.
Phil Ziperman, deputy chief of Maryland's Consumer Protection Division, warns of schemes selling gift cards that have expired or will expire soon. Federal law requires that cards be valid for at least five years.
Beware of fly-by-night businesses that set up in shopping centers but aren't around in January when a problem develops with the service or product, Ziperman says.
Christopher Elliott, author of the soon-to-be-released "Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals," says consumers need to learn to be … well, better consumers. This will help them avoid illegal schemes by con artists as well as unfair practices by legitimate businesses, he says.
"Unless they take being a consumer seriously, they will continue to be scammed," he says.
That means, he says, they need to read the fine print, stay informed and do their due diligence before jumping into a purchase or venture.
The FTC's Anguizola says that if you are a victim of fraud, you should report it to his agency and other authorities to prevent the scam from spreading.