You might not be aware that it's National Consumer Protection Week -- a coordinated effort by state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations to inform consumers about ongoing scams and how to protect themselves from con artists.
While scams promising mortgage relief, student assistance, or credit repair have received wide media coverage, some of the most brazen scams -- ones that take advantage of people's big hearts -- have gone largely under the radar.
From puppy love to charitable giving, con artists know no limits. Here are some of the most appalling scams, schemes, and ploys being used today, and tips on how avoid becoming a victim.
How Much Is That Doggy in the Browser?
A family in Rhode Island recently found a puppy online and promptly fell in love. It was free, but the owner was out of state, and asked them to pay the cost of having the puppy brought to them. They did, but received more emails asking for money. The same thing happened to a woman in Lincoln, Neb., and an Oklahoma woman, all in the past month. After funds are wired for shipping, more requests for money for shots, papers, or medical care continue to come.
Most people wouldn't consider wiring funds to a stranger they met on the Internet under normal circumstances, but add puppies (or kittens, or other cuddly creatures) to the equation, and a tug at the heartstrings can make them forget their usual commonsense precautions. Cristina Miranda, a Consumer Education Specialist at the Federal Trade Commission, recommends that people who want to add a pet to their home do their research and arrange an in-person meeting, or take a trip to the local animal shelter instead.
Thank You for Your Sacrifices -- Now Pay Up
They've served our country and now they need a helping hand. For debt-burdened veterans over the age of 65, converting assets into a trust to qualify for Aid and Attendance benefits for in-home care may look tempting. It's especially true when the people pitching the services seem to have the backing of their nursing home, religious center or community. These lawyers, insurance agents or financial planners offer "free" legal help for which they charge veterans thousands of dollars -- money that earns the shady dealers high commissions. The transfer of funds may even disqualify the veteran for Medicaid, or make their own money inaccessible to them.
Filing for veterans benefits is free, and the Veterans Administration can offer guidance, though it does not endorse specific plans. As always, individuals should check on the accreditation and references of any person wishing to handle their assets or offering financial or legal advice.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Every day for years, a woman would stand in front of a Bay Area big-box store and collect money for a local shelter. The problem was, the shelter was fake and the woman wasn't an employee or a volunteer -- she was a con artist who simply walked away with the money. It was part of a broader network of scams that set up fake charitable organizations and allowed the "volunteers" to keep most of what they collected.
Whether it's giving a dollar to a bell-ringing Santa during the holiday season to help the homeless or calling in to a telethon to donate after a natural disaster, there are a myriad of ways to contribute to the common good. And just as there is a charity for every cause, there is a scam for every person willing to help out.
To give responsibly, don't pass a dollar to everyone with a sign. Get more information, research causes and organizations online, or call the Better Business Bureau. Always get a receipt after a donation of any size. And because charities frequently sell their mailing lists to other charities, be very clear about your mailing list and privacy preferences.
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
Finding love can be tough, and it never hurts to expand the search into the digital world. But if the object of your affection is overseas and needs financial help to get to your first date, it may be a sign of a scam.
The FTC offers the same advice about finding love online that it offers when buying a puppy: Don't let the heart rule the wallet. Don't wire funds for any reason, including for visas, hospital bills following an emergency, or to help the person recuperate from a financial or medical setback. Conduct research, and meet in person. And if all else fails, a trip to the local animal shelter might be a happy, healthy alternative.
Photo Credit: Alamy