By Max Mallet and Terra Stanley
Pat Colucci got an exhilarating phone call in the summer of 2009. The 75-year-old retired salesman of metal fillings, X-ray film and other dental equipment needed some extra cash, and a company called BankCard Empire in Phoenix, Ariz. offered a way: Colucci could run his own credit card processing business from the comfort of his modest home in Plainfield, NJ.
BankCard promised to provide Colucci with credit card swiping machines for sale or lease; the company would also register and build Colucci’s website to market the machines. From that point, Colucci would snare a small cut of each transaction processed. Once he sold a decent number of machines, he could kick back and watch the commissions pour in.
All he needed to get started: a one-time fee of $32,450. The trap was set.
Colucci (who says he doesn’t know how BankCard got his name and phone number) covered the bill with two credit cards---one from Chase Bank, the other from Bank of America. Weeks went by, no word from BankCard. Colucci peppered the company with calls. Crickets. After two months, Colucci knew he had been robbed. Chase Bank initially refunded Colucci’s $9,250, but later rescinded; Bank of America refused to reimburse the $23,200 Colucci had put on its card.
In January 2010 Colucci sued BankCard Empire (for negligence and fraud), as well as Chase Bank and Bank of America (for violating the Truth in Lending Act) in federal district court in New Jersey. Three months later the United States Postal Inspector, assisted by the Tempe, Ariz. police, shut down BankCard. Colucci hasn’t seen a dime. All charges, save for the one citing negligence, have been thrown out; the suit is still pending. As for the fraud-protection policies offered by the banks, they tend only to protect card holders from unauthorized use of their cards---not from transactions willingly performed with a crook disguised as a legitimate operation. “I feel that the banks ripped me off as much as the scammer did,” says Colucci, who lives on Social Security and is now looking for a job. A Chase representative declined to comment; Bank of America did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
Colucci has plenty of unsuspecting company in this tight economy. In 2010 the Federal Trade Commission received 8,192 complaints involving work-at-home-business opportunities, flat with the previous year. The FTC estimates that only one in every 55 of these gigs is legitimate.
Whether it involves stuffing envelopes, processing medical insurance claims or assembling toys, most victims never get paid for their work or ever recoup their startup fees. As for Colucci, not only is he out his thirty-two grand, he also has legal bills to pay. “There is no ability to recover enhanced damages or attorney’s fees in a claim against a credit card company when [you] are defrauded on a work-at-home scam,” says Billy Pinilis, Colucci’s attorney. “This usually makes it impossible for a victim to even get counsel because it makes hiring a lawyer economically infeasible. People are entering into transactions believing that they are protected from fraud, when they are not.”
You might think the chance to make easy money in pajamas would get anyone's hackles up. So how do these schemes endure? Most victims---typically senior citizens, stay-at-home mothers and people with low incomes---are too embarrassed to file a complaint; others get so frustrated they just walk away altogether.
Smell a scam? Vet the offer with your local Better Business Bureau, which maintains a directory of local businesses. Beware: Just because the company's name is listed in the directory doesn't mean it’s a legitimate operation. These businesses change names all the time, masking their dirty track records.
Victims should contact their local or state consumer affairs agency, their state attorney general's office, the advertising manager of the publication that ran the business's employment ads and, if they received anything from the business by mail, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
In the meantime, here are a few nasty work-at-home schemes we’ve identified over the last few years. For a full list of 16, click here.
Making a few extra bucks doesn’t sound any easier than this: Simply pay an up-front, one-time fee (a few thousand dollars, perhaps) to have someone build and host a functioning website featuring various household goods for sale, from toothpaste to toilet paper; each time someone buys an item, you collect a slice of the transaction. All you need to do is encourage people to shop there—the rest (stocking inventory, shipping the product) is handled for you. Or, more likely, nothing is handled, and the thief offering you the opportunity is long gone with your earnest money before you’ve hocked one tube of Crest.
Letter From Nigeria
Also called the 419 scam (referring to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud), this bait-and-switch has recently gained a lot of attention. The ruse takes many forms. One common flavor: An email arrives from a man claiming to be a senior civil servant of Nigeria (or another African country), who writes that he is looking for a reputable foreigner with whom he can deposit up to $60 million for safe-keeping while he deals with some dangerous political strife. In return for providing safe haven in your bank account, the thief promises to give you 30% of the money once—as one email put it—“documentations are concluded over here.” The emails may even come with a (forged) seal of the Nigerian government, just for good measure. Of course, you will be required to cough up a deposit so that you have a stake in the business venture. When your Nigerian friend later claims something has gone awry, he will ask for additional funds to tide him over---never mind that he supposedly has millions of dollars to start with. (Another non-work-at-home twist: The email may claim that you are eligible to receive a hefty inheritance from a wealthy and recently deceased diplomat or businessman. Yet another: You might be promised a handsome fee for distributing a giant stash among various charities. Yes, confirms the Federal Trade Commission: People do fall for this.
Lonely hearts aren’t the only fans of 1-900 numbers. Scammers use them to push bogus work-at-home gigs: Just call the 1-900 number for “more information.” While you wait on hold, you’ll rack up usurious charges, which the crook splits with the unwitting phone company. Foil the scam and, like a game of Whack-a-Mole, the bad guy simply pops up under a different name, with a different number.
This scam, recently advertised on Craigslist, has many variations. In one case, a man asks you to chauffer his wife, who is visiting your area. Easy enough, though the payment terms are a tad convoluted. You are told that you will receive a check (or “money gram”) for, say, $2,500 in the mail. You will deposit the check, then immediately pull out the cash--- $700 to cover your fee and any ancillary expenses, and the rest to be mailed back to the scammer. Your bank probably won’t know for a day or two that you have deposited a fake check.
Also called "money-mule" schemes. The gist: Scammers recruit U.S. agents--dubbed "financial managers" or "sales managers"--to cash counterfeit checks (or deposit stolen funds), for a small commission, and then wire that money abroad, often to the scammers themselves. By the time the bank realizes the checks are bogus (two to five days later), the money's been sent and the unsuspecting intermediary is left holding the bag.
Most of these work-from-home schemes promise up to thousands of dollars per week for processing insurance claims for doctors who are too busy to deal with the paperwork themselves. You'll receive startup marketing materials, software, a training session and a "lead" list of local doctors--all for a fee, of course. Too bad that software costs a lot less at Best Buy, your training sessions are postponed indefinitely, your leads are vapor and no one wants your service.
In this scam, an official-sounding entity, such as the Mystery Shopping Club of America, promises assignments to aspiring marketing researchers. How to get paid? Just make anonymous purchases at various stores and evaluate your experience--right after you pay a "registration fee" to look or apply for assignments in its database. Legitimate offers won't require a fee or "certification" to search for companies requesting mystery shoppers. Typical prey: college students.
Pre-screened List of Jobs
This might be the most heartless one of all. Consumers pay a fee to register with the business to access a pre-screened list of "legitimate" work-at-home job listings. The scammer's ads pop up in the course of a "scam free jobs at home" online search, and they promise a refund to those who fail to land a job. After sending in payment, victims are summarily locked out of their accounts and never see a single job opportunity.