It's boom times for scam artists
By LESLIE CAULEY
Scam alert: Dirty trick artists are hard at work.
States across the country report an uptick in complaints about a range of consumer abuses, including pitches for extended auto warranties that offer little or no value to consumers. People on do-not-call lists are getting swamped with offers for all manner of bogus products, from swine-flu cures to debt-settlement plans.
Scammers especially target the most vulnerable consumers — the elderly and the poor, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller says.
"Violations go up in a down economy," Zoeller notes. During the first three months of the year, the Federal Trade Commission, the top U.S. troubleshooter for consumers, received 450,000 complaints about calls to people whose phone numbers are registered on the National Do Not Call Registry, spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell says. At that rate, complaints this year will easily top last year's 1.8 million.
Scammers are becoming more creative, Zoeller says. This week, he filed a lawsuit accusing two companies and one individual of violating Indiana's do-not-call laws.
Zoeller says the accused were illegally placing automated, or robo, calls mainly to cell phones. Those blast calls, sent out thousands at a time, were aimed at getting people to sign up for extensions on expired dealer or manufacturer warranties.
Michelle Corey, president of the St. Louis Better Business Bureau, says scare tactics are common.
In some cases, telemarketers remind consumers that they need a car and play on fears of possible job loss to coax them into signing up for useless extended auto warranty plans.
"In this economy, every dollar counts," she says.
Financial scams are also raging. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced a probe of a "rogue industry" of debt-settlement firms that advertise plans to renegotiate debts and pay off credit cards. Fourteen companies and one law firm in locations across the nation were subpoenaed.
Cuomo says many plans are flawed or misleading and leave consumers worse off financially.
Not even swine flu is off-limits for scammers. Zoel- ler's office issued a statewide alert after telemarketers started calling consumers and urging them to buy "mandatory swine-flu kits" they said were required by the government. Such claims are false.
Zoeller asks consumers who receive such calls to hold on to the numbers "so our office can investigate."