Sidestep the Top 5 Scams of 2012

PHOTO: Hand stopping man from taking money
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It's you versus the con artists and they have an unfair advantage. After all, they're the ones who invent the devilishly clever schemes to separate you from your money.

That's why I'm about to arm you with the information you need to be a virtual scam-busting ninja. If knowledge is power, then this is the weaponry you need to face down fraud.

It's all my breathless way of saying that the Better Business Bureau has analyzed its data and come up with its annual list of the "Top Scams."

"Some of these scams have been around as long as BBB --100 years -- and some take advantage of brand new technologies," said BBB president Carrie Hurt. "Our list is made up of the ones that seemed the most audacious, the most egregious."

I love these lists, because if you know what the schemes are, you can sidestep them. This year the BBB did something a little different, assuming people knew about some of the broadest scam categories, and then identifying the worst culprits within those. Here they are:

1.
Top Check Overpayment Scam: Car Ads

In a check overpayment scam, the crook makes an excuse to send you a check, makes it out for more than they owe you, and then asks you to send them back the difference. If you do, you've lost your money because the check turns out to be a fake. The BBB singles out the "Get Paid Just for Driving Around" ad as the worst of these from 2012. In this tall tale, a company offers $400+ per week if you'll drive around with their logo all over your car. They send a check. You are supposed to deposit it in your account, then wire part of it to the graphic designer who is creating the signage for your car. Of course, the graphic designer is really the crook and runs off with your money.

2.
Top Stranded Traveler Scam: Grandparents Scam

In the stranded traveler scam, a con artist hacks into your friend's email address book and sends messages to everyone in it claiming to be stuck in a foreign country and asking for money to get back home. The "grandparents scam" is one vicious version of it. The "grandchild" is traveling abroad and calls, emails or texts the grandparent to say he or she has been mugged or arrested overseas and please send money. Often the "grandchild" begs the grandparent not to tell his or her parents -- a way for the scammers to keep the target from checking in with family to see if the story is true. The BBB says social media has only fueled this fire, because con artists can use details from people's Facebook pages to make their impersonation convincing.

3.
Top Employment Scam: Mystery Shopping

Employment scams -- where scam artists dangle the lure of jobs -- peaked during the recession and they're still thick out there. The Mystery Shopper is one of the classic, "too good to be true" scenarios. The scammers claim you can make big bucks by shopping. "Get paid to shop!" There are a few genuine mystery shopper gigs in the world (Find one through the Mystery Shopping Providers Association here), but most are fakes. The trick is that they make you pay for non-existent job leads, or they pull a version of the check overpayment scam.

4.
Top Advance Fee Scam: Nonexistent Loans

It's illegal for a lender to claim they can guarantee you a loan in exchange for an up-front fee. But, it's confusing. After all, when you apply for a mortgage you have to pay for a credit check, an appraisal and so on. The key is the word "guarantee." No bank can guarantee you a loan UNTIL they've done the credit check, the appraisal and the rest. But, rogue companies do it all the time. The BBB says they mostly advertise online, claiming they can get you a loan with no credit check or an easy repayment plan. Then they make some excuse to ask for money in advance. You have to "prepay" the first payment or buy insurance or some such thing. The bad guys then pocket that payment and disappear.

5.
Top Phishing Scam: President Obama Will Pay Your Utility Bills

You probably know by now that a phishing scam is one in which the thieves pretend to be with your bank or the authorities and ask for personal financial information they can then use to drain your accounts. In 2012, phishing took on an election-year twist. Emails, letters and even door-to-door salespeople claimed that President Obama and the feds had a new program to pay your utility bills for you. All you had to do was fill out a questionnaire with your bank account number and every other detail the bad guys needed to steal your money.

The Better Business Bureau has unparalleled name recognition. Often it's the first place consumers turn when they've been taken advantage of. But many don't realize it's not a government agency. It's a private non-profit organization that serves both businesses and consumers. The BBB doesn't have the power to prosecute all the scammers it hears about. So it's started two websites to try to educate all the consumers who come looking for help:

     www.bbb.org/smartinvesting

This site educates readers about investment fraud and helps them check out investment brokers before they hire them.

     www.bbb.org/scamstopper

This website educates consumers about the most common scams and where to report them.

If you'd like to see the rest of the BBB's top scams list, you can access it here. To check out a business or charity, click here.

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