Every year, Better Business Bureau receives thousands of calls and emails from consumers who have been scammed, or from the lucky ones who have dodged scams by being wary.
Some scams are widespread, getting a lot of people for small amounts. Others are more narrowly focused, but take people for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
The Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel Data Book estimates that Americans lost $1.4 billion to scams in 2012, reports the Better Business Bureau serving Detroit and Eastern Michigan, which serves the Upper Peninsula.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus, the umbrella organization for the 113 local BBBs across the U.S. and Canada, culls its annual "Top Ten Scams" list from a variety of sources, including reports from consumers; from federal agencies; and from other reliable sources.
BBB Top Ten Scams of 2013
- Medical Alert Scam: A new twist to the telemarketing scam hit 2013 hard. With promises of a "free" medical alert system, the scam targeted seniors and caretakers and claimed to be offering the system free of charge because a family member or friend had already paid for it. In many cases, seniors were asked to provide their bank account or credit information to "verify" their identity and, as a result, were charged the monthly $35 service fee. The system, of course, never arrived and the seniors were left with a charge they had trouble getting refunded.
- Auction Reseller Scam: Many people turn to Ebay and other online auctions sites to sell used items they no longer need, and relatively new electronics seem to do especially well. But scammers have figured out a way to fool sellers into shipping goods without receiving payment. Usually the buyer claims it's an "emergency" of some sort - a child's birthday, a member of the military shipping out - and asks the seller to ship the same day. The seller receives an email that looks like it's from PayPal confirming the payment, but emails are easy to fake.
- Arrest Warrant Scam: This one seemed to really take off last autumn. In this scam, con artists are taking advantage of technology that can change what is visible on Caller ID, and allowing them to pose as the office of the local sheriff or other law enforcement agency. They call to say there is a warrant out for your arrest, but that you can pay a fine in order to avoid criminal charges. Of course, these "police" don't take credit cards; only a wire transfer or pre-paid debit card will do. Sometimes these scams seem very personal; the scammer may refer to a loan or other financial matter. It may just be a lucky guess, but don't be fooled into thinking you are about to be arrested.
- Invisible Home Improvements: Home improvement scams vary little from year to year, and most involve some type of shoddy workmanship from unlicensed or untrained workers. The hardest for homeowners to detect, and therefore the easiest for scammers to pull off, are repairs or improvements to the areas of your home that you can't see: roofs, chimneys, air ducts, crawl spaces, etc. Scammers may simply knock at your door offering a great deal because they were "in the neighborhood," but more and more they are using telemarketing, email and even social media to reach homeowners. Check out home contractors at bbb.org before saying yes.
- Casting Call Scam: This is not as widespread as some other scams, but it seems to have really been on the increase in recent years, thanks to the popularity of television talent shows like "American Idol" and "Project Runway." Scammers pose as agents or talent scouts looking for actors, singers, models, reality show contestants, etc., and use phony audition notices to fool aspiring performers into paying to try out for parts that don't exist. There are several ways this plays out. It can simply be an unscrupulous way to sell acting lessons, photography services, etc., or it can be an outright scam for things like fees for online "applications" or upcoming "casting calls." Even worse, the information provided on an online application could be everything a scammer needs for identity theft.
- Foreign Currency Scam: Investments in foreign currency can sound like a great idea, and scammers frequently use real current events and news stories to make their pitches even more appealing. They advertise an easy investment with high return and low risk when you purchase Iraqi Dinar, Vietnamese Dong or, most recently, the Egyptian Pound. The problem is that they will be difficult to sell, and it's extremely unlikely they will ever significantly increase in value.
- Scam Texts: With online and mobile banking skyrocketing, it's not a surprise that scams quickly follow. One major tactic recently is the use of scam texts, known as "smishing," to steal personal information. They look like a text alert from your bank, asking you to confirm information or "reactivate your debit card" by following a link on your smart phone. Banks of all sizes have been targeted, and details of the scam vary, but the outcome is the same: scammers get your banking information.
- Do Not Call Scams: The National Do Not Call Registry (U.S.) or the National Do Not Call List (Canada) offer consumers a free way to reduce telemarketing calls. Scammers call anyway, of course, and they've even found a way to scam consumers by pretending to be a government official calling to sign you up or confirming your previous participation on the Dot Not call list. In one variation, scammers ask for personal information, and in another, scammers try to charge a fee to join the registry.
- Fake Friend Scam: Did you ever get a Friend Request on Facebook from someone you already thought was your Friend? If you hit Accept, you may have just friended a scammer. A popular recent scam has been the theft of people's online identities to create fake profiles, which can be used in a variety of ways. A new Friend can learn a lot about you to scam you later, "recommend" sketchy websites that download malware, use your account to scrap information on your other Friends, even impersonate a military officer or other trustworthy person to perpetrate a romance scam. Be careful on social media.
- Scam of the Year: Affordable Care Act Scam: Scammers had a field day with the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), using it as a way to fool Americans into sharing their personal information. Scammers would call claiming to be from the federal government and saying the would-be victim needed a new insurance card or Medicare card. However, before they can mail the card, they need to collect personal information.