Adding insult to injury during a recession, some people are preying on the vulnerable and unemployed.
You've seen the titillating ads, saying things like: "Make $600 a Day Wearing Your Pajamas" or "Achieve Financial Freedom Without Ever Leaving Your Couch."
Nearly 600,000 Americans lost their jobs in January, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and 2-3 million more jobs are projected to be lost over the coming year. It's no wonder con artists are posting bogus work-at-home job leads at an unprecedented rate.
"Currently there's a 54-to-1 scam ratio among work-at-home job leads on the Internet," said Staffcentrix co-founder, Christine Durst, who screens up to 5,000 online job offers every week and rates them on her Web site. "That means that for every 55 [work-at-home] job leads that you find on the Internet, 54 of them are going to be outright scams or downright suspicious."
Unfortunately, 23-year-old Laura O'Neal from Aiken, S.C., wasn't aware of that statistic when she went looking for a job that would allow her to stay home and take care of her 2-year-old daughter. She saw an ad (at Envelopesathome.com) that promised $12 for every envelope she stuffed and thought she'd discovered the magic key to being a stay-at-home mom.
"It seemed like it would work out great," said O'Neal. "I could just sit here and stuff envelopes and pay attention to [my daughter] and be able to make a legitimate paycheck."
O'Neal said the ad lead her to believe she'd earn "anywhere between $300 and $800 a week," considerably more that what O'Neal was making outside the home, working a 9-to-5 job. She also hoped it would bring in enough money to help get her family out of debt.
After carefully reading the Web site that listed the job opportunity, O'Neal sent in $37.94 for a starter kit. She waited for weeks, but nothing ever arrived.
Frustrated, she went back to the company to register a complaint.
"I did go back to the Web site to see if maybe there was an e-mail address or a phone number or somebody that I could contact, and there was nothing."
O'Neal complained to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which forwarded her complaint to the Loveland, Colo., police. Officer Mike Braband had already received 50 similar complaints.
Braband's investigation focused on 27-year-old Matthew Whitley. After screening Whitley's bank records, Braband determined the envelope stuffing business had brought in $120,000 for Whitley in just nine months -- his only source of income.
"20/20" was present as Braband arrested Whitley at his high-rent condominium complex one morning last October.
When Whitley came to the door, it seemed the police visit had woken him up after a long night of partying and playing cards at his 7-foot poker table. The apartment also boasted a large flat-screen TV and seven computers.
Whitley refused to be interviewed by "20/20." At the Loveland police station, he was charged with felony theft and felony computer crimes. He was fingerprinted, photographed and later posted $5,000 bail. Since his arrest, he's hired a lawyer and pleaded not-guilty. A jury trial is set for June 2.