By Eric Hunt

The year that was 2009 has just ended and that means its time for a popular ritual… the year-end list. The following top scams were compiled from the top ten list of scams and rip-offs that were released by several local branches of the Better Business Bureau. The most frequently mentioned have made the Scamraiders list.

2009 was a year filled with health scares, financial difficulties and job losses. The scammers saw these tumultuous times as a golden opportunity to take advantage of desperate people. This becomes even more obvious looking at the types of scams that keep popping up on the following list.

And so without further ado, as named by members of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, here are the top scams of 2009:

These often appeared as spam emails or internet advertising and offered wonder pills and miracle products. Acai berry to improve aging, teeth whiteners and other remarkable supplements clogged inboxes and popped up as cheap advertising even on some of the web’s most trusted sites. Often claiming bogus celebrity endorsements, many of these products came with a free trial offer. Thousands upon thousands of complaints came in from consumers who claimed the products not only didn’t work, but the “free” trials ended up costing as much as hundreds of dollars monthly.

Classified ads, online pop-ups and spam emails offered those in financial straights an easy way to take the pressure off. Some promised loans or even government stimulus grants in the thousands of dollars, but asked for an upfront fee. After the fee was paid, the company would disappear and no loan would ever come. Others offered to help consolidate credit debt or offer assistance in restructuring a burdensome mortgage. These services came with an upfront fee of several hundred dollars. After payment, the victims would receive several pamphlets in the mail containing basic consolidation/restructuring information, if they ever received anything at all.

These scams were particularly prevalent in areas hit hard by storms and other natural damages this past year. Contractors magically appear on a homeowner’s doorstep, with promises of fixing obvious damage, claiming to have materials left over from a local job they need to utilize, or scaring the victim with fabricated tales of a cracked heat exchange or bogus carbon-monoxide readings. The price is ridiculously cheap, but the work is even worse than the price. Since most of these con men operate from a mobile base of operations, they are nearly impossible to track down when the shoddiness of their work reveals itself. Victims are out the fee they paid the scammers, plus the cost of repairing the work they might have not even needed.

These scams target those who are looking to make a quick buck or find a new job. They are jobs found in classified ads and online for mystery shoppers. The job applicants are told they will be secretly shopping at a store or using a money-wire transfer service and then rating the customer service. The victims are then sent a check to be deposited. They take out the money, shop with it or wire back a portion, fill out a questionnaire about the experience then keep the difference as payment for their services. A week or two later the initial check bounces and the “mystery shopper” is on the hook for all the money that was spent.

Phishing and pharming are a continuing problem. They pop up as emails or fake web pages in an attempt to get the victim to divulge sensitive information, whether its usernames and passwords on banking or credit accounts or social security numbers which can be used for ID theft. The emails often appear to come from a government agency, trusted business, or even a friend. In 2009, there was a particular spam email that was a known to upload malware (software that exploits your computer) claiming to sell wares that would help stop the spread of the dreaded H1N1 virus.

Victim’s get a letter in the mail claiming they’ve won a Publisher’s Clearing House type prize or money in a foreign lottery. The letter also comes with a check that represents only a portion of the actual winnings. They are told to deposit the check then wire a large amount back to cover taxes or fees before the main amount can be released. The check bounces, and no prize money is ever awarded.

These are geared more towards small and home business ventures and those renting apartments or selling goods online. The victims are contacted by potential customers who then pay with a check. The check is an overpayment, normally by a few hundred dollars. The customer asks the victim to wire the overpaid amount back to them. The check ends up being a fake, and the victim has wired their own money to a con artist.

This type of scam sort of cross-pollinates others already on the list, but it is running so rampant, the folks at the BBB felt they should give it its own listing. Increasingly, victims are discovering they are victims of identity theft long after the act has occurred when they receive a bill in the mail or a check bounces. Often times the information has been stolen online via phishing or pharming as discussed earlier. There are other methods too, including a new online tactic, scareware. This is where a pop up ad surprises a web surfer claiming their computer is infected. They are prompted to purchase cheap software to fix the problem, but often this is just a lure to obtain the victim’s financial information.

These scams prey on an ever growing pool of potential victims, those desperately looking for work. These con artists claim to be professional job seekers, who will hook up the victim up with a great paying job. Then when a potential job is available they claim they need to provide an upfront fee for the candidate to be considered. The victim pays the fee and there isn’t even an interview. The job never existed and the job hunter has disappeared with the money. A variation has the job hunter requesting the job applicant’s financial information in order to run a background check for potential clients. They then steal the banking information and steal from the victim at a later date.

Even though you are on the national do-not-call list, there is no safe haven from automatic sales calls. The calls often claim you have an auto warranty about to expire, a complete fabrication, or offer to reduce the interest rate of your credit cards. The calls grew so insidious in 2009 it forced the FTC to increasingly restrict the practice as the year wore on.

Another scam targeting the unemployed, work at home cons offer promises of big paychecks with very little work. Most are nothing more than informational pamphlets or CDs that you pay a large upfront fee for and then find don’t help you make any money at all. Buyer beware.

Beware letters, emails, etc that claim you have won a free trip. They often ask you to provide credit card information before providing details, when you do…guess what? That trip isn’t really free after all. Also look out for bogus travel clubs. They claim to put together cheap vacation packages by pre-selling to customers, but never actually sell enough to complete the package and rarely return the monies they do collect.

Don’t trust the friend or neighbor who recruits you to participate in a no-fail business model or investment fund. Often these turn out to be elaborate pyramid schemes where the older investors are solely being paid off by the new members’ investments.

This past year many cell phone users were shocked to discover they had been paying a monthly fee for premium text message services. Often times these are not coming from their service provider but a third-party operator. These charges are normally accrued via the internet through online games played and surveys. A cell phone number is requested to forward the results. The user doesn’t realize they are also signing up for a worthless monthly service.

Also known as the Grandma scam, this con has gained new legs with social networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace and online chats. The victim is contacted by someone online that the trust (in truth someone has stolen their online identity via phishing). The scammer, posing as this trusted person, then claims they are stuck out of the country and request cash be wired to them so they can get home.

These were the top scams of 2009 as combined from the lists provided by the BBB. Every scam mentioned above has been explored extensively on Scamraiders over the last six months. A new year brings new ways these crooks will try to take our hard earned money. We promise to stay on top of these new scams in 2010, so keep reading.

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