Expert Describes 'Golden Age Of Scams'

An Internet scam touting a teeth-whitening product.
An Internet scam touting a teeth-whitening product.

By Bennett Gordon, PRI

There are thousands of ways unsuspecting consumers are scammed every day, either by door-to-door salespeople, or on the Internet.

The ads often feature happy and attractive people smiling for the camera, hawking teeth whitening or other self-improvement products for cheap. Too often, the ads are scams designed to defraud people out of hundreds of dollars.

"We all get bit by these scams," Dave Lieber, watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star Telegram and founder of WatchdogNation.com told  Here and now. "There's nobody immune, I don't care how smart you are."

Often, the scams offer free samples, and consumers have a 10-day window in which they can cancel. After that, the consumer can do little to stop their cards from being billed, sometimes up to $700 or $800. In fact, one of the producers of Here and Now was defrauded by one of these scams offering teeth-whitening products.

"We're in the golden age of scams right now," according to Leiber, in part because the internet makes it easy for scammers to hide. In one case, Leiber was contacted by a group of school children who lost $3,000 when they tried to publish a book through an online, self-publishing scheme. Another common scheme involves garage door repair offers: What should be a $40 repair part quickly spirals into a $900 new garage door.

A producer at Here and Now went to her bank for help, and the bank was able to help her get the money back. That's a great option, according to Leiber. If that doesn't work, Leiber recommends finding out where the company is based and contacting the regulatory agencies in that area.

In general, though, it's very difficult to find the perpetrators of these schemes. At times, the businesses will have set up a labyrinthine network of international affiliations to hide the identities of the people involved. According to Leiber, "There's no way that the police can ever really catch them without an international cooperation, and the resources and the time."

To avoid the scams, Leiber recommends that people shop at stores with a brick-and-mortar presence. That way, if something goes wrong, consumers will have a place where they can go to complain. And the scams aren't limited to over the internet either. "I have a rule: Never buy from anybody knocks on my door," Leiber told Here and Now. "And of course, I learned that lesson the hard way."

If people do end up getting scammed, it's important that they always complain, according to Leiber. If the police collect enough information on a person, they may be able to figure out what's going on.

"It's easy to make a dollar this way because no one really chases it," Leiber says. With the right information, however, consumers have ways to fight back.

This program aired on July 13, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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