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Editorial: Don't fall prey to scammers

Scamming knows no season. Whenever people have money and are vulnerable, scammers are prepared to make them victims.

The Wisconsin Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports it has received numerous complaints and inquiries from consumers across the country about fraudulent job offers for positions as "mystery" or "secret shoppers."

Consumers say they receive a letter, generally by postal mail, containing instructions and accompanied by a check. The instructions usually direct the recipient to deposit the check, spend a specific amount of money in local, retail stores as a "secret shopper" and send the remaining amount back via Western Union or MoneyGram. In most cases, consumers are instructed to spend a couple hundred dollars while the balance of the check is to be wired to an unknown individual, often located outside the U.S.

In the past, consumers who followed these instructions have informed the BBB the cashier's check was later determined by their banks to be counterfeit. The result was that, not only were they now responsible for the amount of the bad check, but they also faced the danger of having their accounts closed.

Mystery shopper scam letters being sent frequently use Wisconsin return addresses, which turn out to be fraudulent and often are found to be rented boxes at UPS stores to make it look as if they have a valid, tangible location when they do not. In some cases, perpetrators actually "hijack" and use valid company names and real addresses to stage their scheme.

If such a mailing is received, the BBB offers these tips:

--Whether it's in the form of a job, loan, grant, sweepstakes or lottery, don't fall victim to any advance-fee scams. All of these scams work the same way, the same as above.

--Although the funds from a deposited check may be available for use within 1-5 business days of deposit, it can take several weeks for the bank to determine the check is counterfeit or otherwise invalid. Instructions to draw money on checks shortly after they have been deposited may be the work of unscrupulous companies attempting to take advantage of this technicality.

--Promises of financial relief, suspicious job offers or prize winnings for contests people didn't enter are ploys to trick them into wiring considerable sums of cash to random individuals, usually overseas. Acting on such offers puts people in danger of unwittingly violating local, state and even federal laws.

--Never wire transfer money to any unknown person with whom there's never been any personal contact.

--Always check with the BBB before doing business.

The BBB also cautions the public to avoid the following new and/or most common scams:

--BBB Phishing Frustrations. Businesses and organizations around the country are receiving fraudulent complaint emails from scammers who are abusing BBB's name and reputation.

--Mortgage Relief Misleaders. Homeowners are tricked into paying large upfront fees for mortgage relief services and then companies disappear abruptly.

--Hotel Hoaxes. Hotel guests receive calls in their rooms--often late at night--claiming front desk computers have crashed and credit card numbers are needed again; victims provide information, but callers aren't hotel employees.

--Cheating Contractors. Homeowners are left with little recourse after door-to-door repairmen promise incredible deals, require large upfront fees and then skip out before completing work.

--Check Cashing Cons. Sellers receive checks for more than items are worth and are instructed to wire excess money back. Checks later bounce and victims are responsible for lost funds.

--Social Media Scams. Victims are sent "popular" viral videos on social networking sites, but must upgrade software to view files. Downloads may install malware or viruses placing victims at risk for identity theft.

--Swindling Sweepstakes. Consumers who didn't enter sweepstakes or foreign lotteries are informed they have won large sums of money or other prizes and must pay smaller sums in order to collect; payments are made and nothing is received.

--Canine Cons. Scammers set up a fake website selling non-existent puppies for rock-bottom prices. Victims wire money to the so-called seller, but never receive their puppy.

--Pay the Con Artist Using Pre-Paid Debit Cards. Because consumers are getting wise to wiring money or fake checks, many scammers now prefer to be paid using untraceable, pre-paid debit cards.

--Timeshare Scams. In this tough real estate market, timeshare sellers should beware of companies claiming to already have a buyer and wanting upfront fees.

--Job Scams. Scammers are working overtime to take advantage of the high number of people looking for jobs, especially online.

--Lousy Legal Advice. Some scammers are offering low-cost legal advice, but don't have any legal qualifications. The only problem? The consumer may end up in even more legal trouble.