"It's good to know that this guy is going to get what he deserves, because from what the police officer was telling me he was ripping off people that were stay-at-home moms, disabled, elderly on a fixed income and, and people like us -- we don't have this money to throw away," O'Neal said. "It's only $37.94, but, you know, that's my $37.94. My husband worked hard for it, you know, and we don't have money to just throw away; we have a 2-year-old daughter to take care of, we've got bills and groceries to put on the table."
O'Neal is just one of nearly 2.5 million Americans who get sucked into work-at-home scams every year, an industry that takes in $400 billion annually, according to a report by the Federal Trade Commission. In the past, scammers tended to advertise their programs with letters, classified ads and signs wrapped around telephone poles. Today, the Internet has become the standard means to reach victims because it's cheap and reaches an international audience.
Staffcentrix's Christine Durst says she's noticed a sharp spike in the number of scams just in the past year.
"We're definitely seeing an escalation, and the escalation, of course, is coming because there's demand," she said. "We're seeing a change in the economy. We're seeing a lot of retirees who are looking for a way to supplement their retirement income. Work-at-home moms who want to be there for their children. People are looking for extra income."
Currently, one of the most vicious work-at-home scams is known as "mystery shopping." The ads promise to pay consumers to do something they typically love to do -- shop -- and then send in written evaluations about the store and the service. Some mystery shopping is legitimate (employing about 1 million Americans every year), but Kathleen Calligan of the Middle Tennessee BBB says when it's a scam, "it's beyond cruel."
"I think with my 30 years at the BBB I've seen all kinds of scams. This one in particular is the most cruel scam I've witnessed," she said. "This ruins your financial history and your credit report. It is financially devastating to your family."
Nashville, Tenn., resident Tresea Judson was a recent victim of a mystery shopping scam, drawn in by the promise of flexible hours and good money.
"I was desperate to just get any work because work here is kind of short," she said." And I was just looking to any job so that I can pay my rent and survive."
When Judson saw an ad in the local paper offering a so-called mystery shopping position, she applied. About a week later, she received a letter from Universal Research, Inc. with a check made out to her for $3,990 dollars.
"When I saw that letter I thought it was a godsend," said Judson. "I thought it was an answered prayer that I had gotten a good job, and I was happy."
Judson was instructed to deposit the $3,990 check into her bank account. Then, within two days, she was told to find the Moneygram branch inside Wal-Mart and wire $3,500 dollars back to Universal Research. There was a $90 fee to wire money, leaving her with $400 profit to pocket. All she had to do was send in a written evaluation of how she was treated by the Moneygram employees.
"The letter said to pay attention to what goes on," said Judson, "and watch the customer service people and rate them on their performance."