January 26, 2010 at 11:47 am

Neal Rubin

Better Business Bureau releases list of top 10 scams

The Better Business Bureau has little regard for phony checks, most auto warranty companies and firms that sell baseless high school diplomas. (Better Business Bureau)

Being a secret shopper could cost you money, not make you money. That free sample of anti-aging pills will cost you, too. And beware the latest wrinkle in online skulduggery, the geographically improbable Haitian Nigerian Scam.

You don't have to be greedy to get hustled, although it certainly helps. As con artists grow increasingly clever, you can also pay a price for naivety -- or even generosity -- with unsavory or outright phony charities stretching their cadaverous fingers toward your wallet.

Tim Burns of the Better Business Bureau outpost in Southfield put out a list this month of the Top 10 Scams and Rip-Offs of 2009, a dishonor roll that includes fake government grants, fake job offers, fake debt assistance and the ever-dependable fake sweepstakes winnings. Since scams mutate more quickly than flu viruses, and since dishonesty often follows tragedy, he already has an addendum for 2010.

You know those e-mails where the widow of the oil minister needs to sneak $7.4 million out of some third-world country, and she's willing to split it with you if you would kindly pay some expenses up front?

Whatever their supposed point of origin, they're known as Nigerian Scams -- and "they're already coming from the so-called government ministry of Haiti," Burns says. "They'll say, 'Our banks aren't operating because of the earthquake, and I need to wire some money out.' "

They are the reason computers come with a Delete key. Use yours with gleeful abandon.

Don't send cash

Along with being a scam fighter, Burns is a lawyer and Oakland County commissioner. Just to make sure he knew his stuff, I asked him his age, hometown and Social Security number. The answers: Almost 37, Clawson, and, "um, nope." So he's legit.

He says it's increasingly difficult to catch scammers because so many are overseas, an unfortunate development. He also says they've been assisted by improvements in home printers, an even more unfortunate development.

With the mystery shopper scam, your alleged employer sends you a check for salary and expenses so realistic that it fools your bank teller, at least for the few days until it bounces. You buy some goods, fill out a report, return the merchandise and wire the refund money to the Cayman Islands. Or instead, you send the products.

Either way, when the check volleyballs, you lose every dime you spent. "We had someone who got into some computer equipment that was in the thousands," Burns says. As for the wire companies, they've unwittingly "almost become the ATM of scammers." If the guy at the receiving end isn't your Uncle Olaf, don't send cash.

Read the fine print

The first trick to the free samples of acai anti-aging supplements, miracle tooth-whiteners and knockoff Viagra -- which are not actually endorsed by Oprah, Rachel Ray or Dr. Oz -- is that the two weeks on your money-back guarantee starts the millisecond you place your order, so it's expired by the time the goods show up in the mail.

The second trick is that by signing up for a sample, you've agreed to monthly payments for access to a Web site you don't care about, or to endless shipments of useless products.

Read the fine print, Burns says. Or better yet, stop believing in miracle tooth-whiteners.

Remember that Publishers Clearing House doesn't ask you to pay the taxes on your winnings up front, and that the government doesn't charge a fee to apply for a grant, and that when in doubt, steely-eyed BBB experts are as close at hand as http://www.bbb.org">www.bbb.org or (248) 223-9400.

"I truly believe," Burns says, "that if these scam artists put their skills to good work, we'd have a cure for cancer."

Instead, they are a cancer. So watch out, and tell that banker in Haiti to say hello to all your friends at the Nigerian oil ministry.

nrubin@detnews.com">nrubin@detnews.com (313) 222-1874

More information is at www.bbb.org. (Better Business Bureau)
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