5 On Your Side

Popular Scams to Guard Against

Posted September 24, 2007 6:37 p.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2007 11:01 p.m. EDT

— There is a good chance you will be the target of an e-mail scam this week. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that Americans are swindled out of $80 billion a year.

Maggie McAlvanah said she was scammed by a contractor while having her kitchen remodeled. The contractor just stopped showing up.

"For many, many, many, many months, while we were trying to get in touch with him and had lawyers write letters, we wrote letters. And then, finally found out the man was in bankruptcy,” said McAlvanah.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus said the most complaints filed last year were against home contractors. A big reason consumers lose money to contractors is because they don't do the research before hiring someone.

"Always get three estimates from contractors. And never do business with somebody who comes to your door unsolicited, or has a high-pressure sales pitch, or is offering a deal that is too good to be true,” said Kim Kleman with Consumer Reports.

There is a popular scam making the rounds that you should be on the look out for. It involves getting checks in the mail that look like you won money. All you have to do is send back a payment to cover taxes. The catch is the checks are not real.

"The check bounces, and the scammer runs off with your so-called taxes,” said Kleman.

So if you get a check for winnings, even though you never played the game, throw it away. If you deposit it, you will have to pay back the bank when the check is returned as fake.

You should also watch out for e-mails that look like they are from your bank, or some other business you know, and even from the Internal Revenue Service. They too, are fake and sent by schemers trying to steal Social Security and credit card numbers. Reputable companies and agencies warn they do not initiate contact through e-mail.

Another racket is the wrong-number scam. Someone calls your answering machine saying the are looking for someone else. They mention a stock that will make a lot of money. You call the person back hoping to take advantage of the stock tip you think was left for someone else.

The scam is complicated, but once promoters have you on board they push up the price of thinly traded stock, which they sell to you when it's high. The bottom drops out, and you are left holding worthless stock.

The Securities and Exchange Commission estimates investors lose $6 billion annually from the wrong-number scam.

The Federal Trade Commission reports the top scam these days is identity theft. A way to protect yourself is to review your credit reports. Federal law entitles everyone to a free copy, once a year, from each of the three credit bureaus.