Aug. 31, 2009— -- Like many Americans, the recession had Christine Kufel worried about her job security. So Kufel, an Ohio corrections officer, thought she'd create her own safety net by earning extra income at home.
A Web site advertisement promising work-from-home opportunities seemed like a good fit, she said. The site said customers could earn $300 to $1,000 a day by starting their own businesses.
But the affiliations suggested by the site were questionable at best: It said that customers would earn cash "working from home with Google," even though Google says it does not endorse such work-from-home sites.
It also claimed that it had been featured by television news organizations, including ABC News and CNN.
Both organizations say they haven't endorsed the site. The site's only real connection to legitimate news organizations, experts say, seems to be through paid advertisements placed on those organizations' Web sites.
But Kufel didn't know about these dubious connections when she signed up.
The references to the popular search engine and television news, she said, gave her a sense there was "some legitimacy" to what it offered. She thought the site would help her do some sort of sales or marketing work from home with the help of a special business kit.
"You see big names like that and you think, 'OK, well it's valid ... it's worth looking into at that point,' " she said.
Now Kufel wishes she hadn't. The company, she said, tried to charge $84 to her credit card without ever sending her the kit. Kufel said she called her credit card company and managed to cancel the charge before it went through, but she's still angry.
"I was scammed," she said.
The Better Business Bureau said it has received hundreds of complaints from consumers who say they've been scammed by Web sites advertising work-from-home opportunities that appear to be affiliated with Google.
Earlier this summer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took one such site, Google Money Tree, to court, alleging that the companies behind the site misrepresented their affiliations with Google and didn't adequately explain to customers that they'd be charged $72.21 a month for signing up with the site. Efforts to reach the defendants named in the FTC lawsuit were unsuccessful.
For its part, Google says it is fighting back against the perception that it's involved with work-from-home scams.
"Google is not paying people thousands of dollars a week to fill out forms or to post links," said Jason Morrison of Google's search quality team. "Scammers are using the Google name and logo without our permission, and we are taking whatever actions we can technically and with our legal team."
Reputable Brands, Troubling Ads
Alison Southwick, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau, said work-from-home scammers use both Google and TV logos to gain credibility for their dubious operations -- and sometimes it works.
Consumers think, "Oh, this was featured in a news story, so it must be legitimate, but usually buried in the bottom in very fine print, it says, 'We are are not affiliated with ABC, CNN, etc.,'" she said.
What can further confuse consumers, she said, is that advertisements for the scams sometimes show up on legitimate news Web sites, including this one.
Here's how it works: A news Web site contracts with advertising placement companies to provide small text ads and links -- the kind you'll often see at the very bottom of online news articles. It's the ad placement company, not the news site, that controls the ads.
Some of the ads are placed based on context. For instance, an ad for a tooth-whitening company may appear below a news article about a dentist. Likewise, an ad for working-from-home operations may appear near a news article about careers.
Google has an ad placement service, and the Web giant concedes that it just can't stop all scam ads, including scam work-from-home sites, from being delivered to its clients.
"We have hundreds of thousands of advertisers," said Google's Morrison. "We can't look at every ad, so we have to rely on automated methods."
He added, "It's an arms race. Every time we clamp down, they find a work around."
One of the largest online ad placement companies is Quigo, which is owned by AOL. The company places ads with ABC News, Fox News and USA Today, among others.
"AOL makes efforts to maintain high quality advertising standards," AOL said in a written statement. "However, advertisers are ultimately responsible for complying with obligations concerning their consumers."
Legitimate Web sites continue to contract with ad placement firms despite the risk of scam ads because the revenue brought in by the ads is large compared to the minuscule financial cost of hosting the ads, said Eric Clemons, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania . The same isn't true, he said, for ads running on television and in newspapers, where commercial time and ad space, respectively, are more expensive.
"Basically, every little bit helps, and firms are not thinking about the reputational impact of accepting ads on a Web site that they would never accept either for print or broadcast," Clemons said.
Real News, Scam Ads: Making the Distinction
Career expert Tory Johnson, the CEO of Women For Hire and a workplace contributor to "Good Morning America," says it is important for consumers to recognize the difference between news articles and ads placed on news sites.
Johnson has found links to apparent work-from-home scams on pages containing her own ABCNews.com articles.
"That's a key distinction," she said. "Consumers, Web site visitors should look for the fine print that says 'sponsored ads,' 'advertisement' or 'sponsored link.'"
The ads to suspicious work-from-home sites don't necessarily lead directly to the sites themselves. Often, the links lead to what appear to be newspaper sites. Such sites, the Better Business Bureau's Southwick said, are typically fake.
It's those phony newspaper sites that then link to work-from-home sites, including those that mislead consumers by using logos for Google and news organizations.
Kufel said that's how she wound up on the work-from-home site that ultimately scammed her -- she saw an advertisement for it on a news site, followed the ad link to what appeared to be a newspaper site and followed links from there to the work-from-home site.
After removing the company's charge from her credit card, Kufel was still worried that the company might try to charge her again, so she cancelled her card and asked that a credit reporting agency put a fraud alert on her credit report.
She also reached out to Meiselman, Denlea, Packman, Carton & Eberz, a New York law firm considering a class action lawsuit against companies perpetuating apparent work-from-home scams using the Google name.
Lawyer Jerome Noll said the companies have been hard to track down.
"If you try to hunt them down, they've got P.O. boxes, their phone numbers are disconnected," he said. "Unfortunately, there really isn't a defendant worth suing. ... They're fly-by-night operations that just are there to scam as many consumers as possible out of their money and then disappear."
The Whack-a-Mole Dilemma
Even finding and stopping one company may not do much about the larger problem. Experts say that trying to shut down such Web sites is like playing a game of "whack-a-mole" -- as soon as you hit one, another pops up.
A consumer's best bet, Women For Hire's Johnson said, is to watch out for themselves.
"I think especially given the economy, with more pressure than ever to find a way to generate income, more and more people are suspending the average common sense," she said.
"This is the time you have to be even more critical -- you have to be more vigilant than ever before."
ABC News' Becky Worley contributed to this report.