"I Got a $12,000 Stimulus Check in Less than 7 days. Get Yours!" Over the past week, this attractive-sounding offer appeared in a Google text ad. Other ads have claimed "Obama's Giving You Cash" and touted "$40,000 [y]ou don't ever have to pay back!"
But both the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau are cautioning consumers about ads that promise easy access to government money, ads that they say have multiplied since passage of the economic stimulus package.
"The bottom line on this is, these are scams," says Eileen Harrington, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The stimulus is not passing out checks to individual consumers."
In an investigation, PC World found multiple sites that offered to send "free" information on how to obtain government grants. Some of those sites asked for personal information--such as name, employment status, and household income--in order to determine whether we "qualified" for grant money. Once we submitted our information, the sites asked us to pay a shipping and handling charge for the information on getting stimulus money--information that Harrington says is probably publicly available.
And that's where things got interesting. At site after site, hefty monthly membership fees were buried in the fine print. And as we looked more closely at one site, following the path from the ad to the offer, we discovered something unsettling: Even as we were editing this story, that path changed repeatedly, sending visitors to several different sites.
Back to that ad about the $12,000 stimulus check: Clicking on it led to a page entitled "Jeff's Grant Blog." The site's domain, jeffrysgrantblog.com, was registered anonymously via the Enom domain registrar on February 13.
The page has a photo of a young man, and the caption underneath reads: "My name is Jeff Donahue, and I started this blog because I want everyone to know how I went from being broke to completely paying off my debt in 7 days by spending a few minutes filling out a form online that qualified me for a Free $12,000 Financial Aid Check from the US Government."
Elsewhere, the site says you can get grant money for almost anything--home repair, personal expenses, even paying off debt. Numerous testimonials vouch for the service (but all are signed with screen-name handles--lee1010, ravensfly, and such--as opposed to full names). All you have to do, the site says, is pay about $3 to cover shipping costs for your "free grant kit."
When I first looked at "Jeff's Grant Blog" on Friday, all of its links led to a shopping-cart site with copyrighted content attributed to a company called Financial Crisis Grant, LLC. There, next to a large photo of President Barack Obama, the site presented a form to enter your information, pay a shipping charge, and--the site said--receive a check "in as little as seven days."
Also on the page was a graphic labeled "Grants in the Media," with logos from MSNBC, CNN, and other major media outlets.