Monday, January 31, 2011

Scams of the Week: Jan 31, 2011

Medical Billing From Home - A couple years ago NHCD, a business with roots in the KC area, was busted for stealing millions of dollars from seniors.  They would recruit an incredible number of people to bill their clients from home. We received countless calls asking about whether it was ok to work for the company or not, which is not something the BBB keeps track of.  One thing we did tell people is that it's not as easy to make money billing from home as the business makes it seem.  They are selling an idea.  Of course it sounds great. It just might not be the financial salvation they make it out to be.  There is much needed training that the companies skim over, employees often must purchase expensive software and sometimes install long distance, toll-free phone numbers in their homes. The biggest problem is no longer from businesses that "recruit" home-based billing personnel.  It comes from salesmen who put on seminars aimed at convincing people they can create a one-person-home-based-billing-business and then charge thousands for "training" that involves a few phone calls with someone who reads from a script.  As soon as a medical company or "traveling seminar" makes the job sound like a breeze, they're scamming you.

National Credit Solutions - Yet another collection agency that has repeatedly violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).  Problems began occurring with the company when they began collecting debts on behalf of bankrupt Hollywood Video. Their BBB Business Review mentions they are currently under investigation by more than one Attorney General and the Montana Attorney General has filed suit against them for violations of consumer protection laws.  It seems that they might be collecting real debts, but they are charging debtors fees to collect those debts.  They are also not validating debts as they are supposed to according to the FDCPA and using inappropriate threats to collect debts.  They are telling debtors how much their credit score will drop if they are not paid, but collection agencies do not have any influence on the calculation of credit scores.  Because of the countless problems this company seems to generate, if you are contacted about a debt with them, IMMEDIATELY write them a letter expressing your wish that they provide proof of a valid debt. If they do not provide it, they will have found another way to violate the FDCPA.

CMG Group/OSM Group/SSM Group - Unlicensed Payday Loan companies.  I don't know why they like using Kansas City addresses or employing Kansas City residents to do their dirty work, but they're not even really here. They're in the Federation of Nevis/St. Kitts.  They frequently claim to have no affiliation with each other, but they're on the same street in the same country. Sure...they're not related.  These companies install a $200 payday loan into the borrower's account and say that the client will have to pay it off in six or eight weekly installments of $75 (i.e. 225-300% interest).  It's a bad deal to begin with, but the good news doesn't stop there.  They will keep charging $75 a week or bi-weekly until the client is forced to close his or her account.  These companies often charge thousands of dollars for their $200 loan.  They are never licensed to lend in any state. They set up a website and wait for people to find them.  Once they cause enough trouble under one name, they just rename it, hence all the nonsensical initials that don't stand for anything. If you have been contacted by one of these companies or another like it, contact your state Banking Commission.

Food Banks Striving to Serve Healthy Food

High calorie, nutrtionally-week food is cheap.  That's a lesson anyone can learn just by buzzing through a McDonald's drive-thru.   I love my dollar fries.  But what's a 'treat' for me, a deviation from my typical healthy lunch of nitrate-free lunch meat on whole wheat bread with baby carrots and hummus, is what, by necessity, too often passes as a meal for those of lesser means.  One in six Americans are at risk for hunger, and that means cheap food is a necessity and that more-expensive healthier options are simply out of reach.

Our nation's food banks are striving hard to provide healthier food to those who need it most.  It's not an easy task.  As this article from NPR explains,  food banks are often forced to accept donations of nutritionally-poor foods such as soft drinks and candy.  At a time when demand for food-bank assistance is growing,  those who feed the hungry simply can't turn away donations of shelf-stable food of any type.

What can you do to help?  Here are some very simple things you can do to get more nutritious food to those who need it.

1.  Donate cash.  Harvesters, a BBB Accredited Charity, distributes food to food banks and soup kitchens all over the Kansas City metro area.  Your cash donation enables them to purchase healthier food items for the many people they serve.

2.  When you donate food items, donate healthy options.  The next time your work place or child's school has a canned-food drive, skip the chips and donate healthier options like beans or canned vegetables.

3.  Plant a Row For the Hungry.  As you start planning your spring and summer garden, plant an extra row of lettuce, squash, peas, or other delectible and donate that row's bounty to Harvester's or a local food bank.  Click on the link above to find drop-off locations for perishable garden produce. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Scams of the Week: Jan 24, 2011

News9Consumer.com - It poses as a news site to trick people into thinking their information is accurate.  It's not.  They have advertisements all over the web. They look like the one below.
Notice that they also use two illegal images.  One, of course, is the President.  Using his unlicensed image in advertising is strictly forbidden under federal law.  The other picture is of French reporter Melissa Theurieu. I posted a blog about companies using her image HERE. These ads have code embedded within them that acquires web surfers' general whereabouts from IP addresses and then advertise fake programs and services in the their area. No matter where the web surfer is, it will mention his or her location. The site has content about extraordinarily inexpensive car insurance, diet and weight loss miracles, homeopathic remedies, work-at-home opportunities and many more schemes.  They are all false, misleading, and deceptive. I expected this group to fall off the earth by now, but they're sticking around and making money. Watch out for similar sites too.  I've run across strikingly similar channel 3, channel 12 and channel 5 sites.

IRS W-2 Scams - There are plenty of incarnations of the W-2 scam.  The online version asks users to "update" their tax form via email.  The email contains an attachment that loads computers with viruses and malware. The BBB issued a warning about the emails today which states quite accurately, "The IRS is not going to email you." There is an old-school mail version of the scam that is mostly mailed from out of the country and last year, a family of criminals was busted for administering a W-2 scam involving fraudulent checks. If you get mail from someone claiming to be the IRS from within the United States, contact the IRS on an official number and report fraud by following directions at the official IRS site.

10 Philanthropic Buzzwords of the Past Decade

I loved this piece in the Chronical of Philanthropy about the 10 philanthropic catch phrases of the past decade.  I've been working the charitable sector for all of those 10 years and I agree with the authors that these 10 words and phrases really capture how the nonprofit sector is changing.  My favorite?  # 9. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011 NTC Preview: What 1.9 Million Donors Can Tell Us About Fundraising on the Web: A Cliff Notes Tour of The Online Giving Study | NTEN

2011 NTC Preview: What 1.9 Million Donors Can Tell Us About Fundraising on the Web: A Cliff Notes Tour of The Online Giving Study NTEN

My favorite snippet from this great study: apparently online giving happens most frequently between the hours of 9am and 5pm Monday - Friday. Clearly those of us who toil away in a cubicle forest are doing more than playing Farmville on Facebook. We're helping people.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Better Business Bureau in the Age of Mad Men

I'm beginning to think the writers of Mad Men have forgotten about us. I've watched all four seasons with more interest than most because I'm the Ad-Review specialist for the Better Business Bureau. I pour through advertising copy every single day to figure out which advertisements violate our Code of Advertising. On Black Friday last year, I bought the first three seasons on Blu Ray and have been soaking up the special features.  I've already noticed the conspicuous lack of BBB in the show (not one mention in four seasons) but I was even more surprised that the audio commentaries from the creators, writers, cast and directors don't mention the BBB. I bring it up because the BBB was the most influential presence in the advertising industry during the 1960s--especially on Madison Avenue.

Every character on that show would have been intimately familiar our Code of Advertising. The senior partner, Cooper, would most likely have had a hand in the Better Business Bureau's origins. Any firm founded in 1923 was almost certainly involved in the truth in advertising movement that spawned the Better Business Bureaus.

The first episode focuses on a Lucky Strike ad campaign in the wake of a Reader's Digest article that first laid the blame of lung cancer at the tobacco industry's feet. At the time, Lucky Strike was owned by American Tobacco Company, who was the target of a Better Business Bureau campaign to improve the veracity of cigarette advertising in 1930. Actually the first Reader's Digest article to accuse cigarettes of causing cancer was published in December of 1952 and the Better Business Bureau was among the first to pick up on it. In a letter from February 1953, the BBB wrote the following passage to one tobacco company:

"Although cigarette advertising, as such, has been widely and justly criticized in recent years, we believe that your current advertising represents a particularly flagrant disregard of the public interest. Your advertising will not only deceive some members of the public to the detriment of their health but it will, in addition, tend to impair the integrity of advertising and lessen public confidence in it." - Taken from Pulitzer Prize finalist The Cigarette Century by Allan Brandt.

The BBB vigorously pursued false cigarette claims for the next 18 years until its efforts culminated in the creation of the National Advertising Review Board, an alliance between advertising groups (like the protagonists of Mad Men) and the Better Business Bureau, which reviewed 1,900 cigarette advertisements over ten years. According to Kent Middleton and William Lee's article Advertising Myths, the review board forced "the revision or discontinuation of campaigns in 42 percent of the cases."

One of Don Draper's clients, Kodak, was a company that founded the Council of Better Business Bureaus in 1971 (although we had to throw them out in 2007 for not answering their complaints). Gillette, who manufactured Right Guard, was a supporter of the Better Business Bureau since the 1920s. They were bought in 2004 by Procter & Gamble, a BBB member since 1928. A rival company to the protagonists, BBDO Worldwide, who wrangled away one of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price's biggest clients, has been a member of the Better Business Bureau since 1959. All of their advertisements must meet the BBB Code of Advertising (When they don't, the company they advertise for is investigated by our National Advertising Division). At the time, the National Better Business Bureau (NBBB) was located in the Chrysler Building in New York, NY., just two blocks over from Madison Avenue where "Mad Men" got their name. During the time that Mad Men takes place, the BBB was mentioned in seven articles in Time Magazine. Reader's Digest articles encouraged its audience to check the reliability of companies with the BBB (1965 vol. 84, 85)

Mad Men occasionally mentions the Federal Trade Commission's advertising regulations. In May of 1961, at the annual BBB convention, the FTC Chairman gave a speech that urged businesses to adhere to the BBB's self-regulation process. Whenever the show references the FTC crackdown on false testimonials, it doesn't mention that also in 1961, the NBBB called for honesty in testimonials, "condemning phony testimonials as a deceptive practice which lowers the standards of advertising to those of a charlatan."  The issue started in Mad Men's back yard when Mickey Mantle endorsed a milk he didn't drink.

The BBB Code of Advertising wasn't something to be taken lightly, either.  Most companies took it seriously and heeded our advice. Some didn't and ended up on the receiving end of government action or found themselves in losing court battles.  In the early sixties, for the first time, the BBB Code of Advertising was admitted as evidence in a New York Supreme Court case in a motion to stop an automobile dealer's false advertising. By 1962, the Mad Men should have been very keen to abide by our Code if they wanted to avoid unnecessary legal issues.

The staggering impact Better Business Bureaus had on the advertising industry during the sixties is so obvious that it caused me to speculate why Mad Men never mentions us. Perhaps it is because we are known for guarding our trademarked name. It seems to be the primary reason the writers of the recent horror film Devil changed our name to just "Business Bureau." However, the The Office felt no need to change our name. I kept expecting one of the main characters in Mad Men, Sterling, to express the utmost hatred for our interfering ways because we would get in the way of him making money by slightly misleading people here and there. It never came up :(

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Establishing a Nonprofit Organization

Do you see an unfilled need in our community? Do you dream of starting your own nonprofit organization? Consider attending this February 3rd class on establishing a nonprofit organization.  The Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership is hosting it, so I know it will be good.
I've blogged about the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership before. It is an excellent resource for the charitable community here in Kansas City.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Scams of the Week: Jan 17, 2011

FREE iPads - There have been several sites popping up that give a very generic front page that only says "Free iPad" with small print and "participation required" somewhere on the site. The websites require people to eventually sign up for wifi contract. Before that the site asks for personal information including address, email and phone number.  Within 24 hours, surfers will get spam emails, telemarketing calls and junk mail. The main problem with these pages is that they mislead consumers into believing that a free iPad is a reasonable expectation when signing up for wifi service.  Instead, people will find themselves the target of countless direct marketers and locked into a contract. There are other similar offers involving gift cards too. Same pitch, differenct contract.

Not So Free Software - A lot of con men are good at spotting ways to make money from actions that aren't really illegal.  Some of them charge for "exclusive" lists of jobs or apartments.  More recently they've found ways to charge people for access to free software.  As long as these con-artists don't charge directly for products they aren't licensed to sell, its difficult to prosecute them. Right now, it appears that many of the scam sites are in Russian, but I've already run across plenty in English. Here's an article about them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Haiti - One Year Later

Today marks the first anniversary of Haiti's devastating earthquake. It still seems unfair that such a tragedy could befall North America's poorest country.  Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Haitian people and the ongoing relief efforts.

This article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy discusses American's charitable giving to the Haitian disaster, how that compares to giving after other disasters, and how that money is being spent. Of note is the fact that Americans have given $1.4 billion toward relief efforts, $200 million shy what we gave in the wake of the 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami tragedy [really, a part of me wonders if the comedic duo of our 41st and 42nd US Presidents that arose in the wake of that tragedy didn't have something to do with how much we gave.  I mean, who doesn't like to see once fierce political foes share airplanes, Secret Service stories, and unite for a cause. I'm shallow enough to think that had something to do with it. By the time the earth shook in Haiti, that novelty had worn off] and considerably less than we gave in the wake of Hurricane Katrina ($3.3 billion).  To be fair though, Americans had a right to take Katrina personally. 

Haiti is still a country in need.  It is currently in the midst of its first cholera outbreak in decades. Click here for advice on how to give wisely to ongoing relief efforts.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Scams of the Week: Jan 10, 2011

While globalization has given us access to a nearly endless amount of valuable information from other nations and cultures, it has made predatory practices a little simpler.  Email is free and can be mass distributed.  Good for businesses; good for con artists. Advertising to people halfway across the world no longer requires expensive shipping costs, just a click of the mouse.  With Facebook, email, Voiceover IP, disposable cell phones, wire transfers and countless other wonderful technologies, con artists have an incredible amount of access to us from anywhere in the world.  This week's scams will focus on scams from all over the world, but have an effect on us.


PowerBalance Wristbands - I was astounded when I read that these people believed "tuning into" the body's natural energy through wristbands, that use holograms could produce better balance.  It's nothing more than miracle treatment. It's fake.  Apparently, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission agreed.  They forced Powerbalance refund customers and to issue an apology for advertising their statements as truth. If you want an extraordinarily overpriced plastic wristband, endorsed by celebrity athletes that have no idea what it does, this is your company.

Business Fee Scam - Businesses often have more money on hand than consumers.  It may be meant to purchase expensive supplies or be dedicated to a much needed technology upgrade for the company, but it's there and that's all scammers care about. In Florida, the Sheriff issued a warning to local residents about a caller who claims to be a deputy from the Okalooska Sheriff's office is phishing for credit card information.  The caller claims that the business hasn't paid their "license fee."  This is included on this list because it's not the only time we've heard of it.  Last year, similar calls came to local businesses from scammers claiming to be the FCC or IRS, who said the businesses hadn't paid correct taxes.  Some local businesses received calls from scammers claiming to be the Better Business Bureau and they didn't pay their accreditation dues. They called Accredited and non-Accredited businesses alike.  Careful of any similar calls or emails that require credit card or banking information. Check with us before giving any financial information via email or phone.

Credit Card Security Scam - I'm glad the Canadians found out about this one, because it will surely hit the United States soon enough.  It's sophisticated enough to be convincing and complex enough to be confusing--two key ingredients in an effective scam.  The con artists call consumers and tell them they are investigating unusual purchases on your credit card.  They have already acquired the consumer's address and credit card number, but need the They make up a bogus purchase and when the consumer states no such purchase was made, they try to get the card security number off the back of his or her card.  The three digit security number is essential to making online purchases. In actuality, if card companies are suspicious, they will ask you security questions, but the security number doesn't help if your card is stolen.  They will ask you questions that don't require you to have the card in front of you.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Accredited Charity Under Fire for Aggressive Copyright Protection

We've all seen those pink ribbons.  Maybe we've even bought the pink yogurt or given money to a friend who was 'racing for the cure.'  Susan G Komen for the Cure has done a tremendous amount of work to raise money for and awareness of breast cancer.  That's a very good thing. 

But according to an article in the Huffington Post, the Komen Foundation has decided to aggressively go after other charities who use any variation for 'for the cure' in their event titles.  I have mixed feellings about this.  I think it's fine for any organization to protect their name and image.  At the BBB, we often warn donors not to assume that charities with similarly-sounding names all have the same degree of credibility.  But lots of diseases need cures and heart disease is actually the leading cause of death in women, not cancer.  When it comes to health charities, the word 'cure' is pretty ubiquitous, a working for a cure for something is the mission of quite a few of them.  Should one organization working toward the end of one disease own that phrase? I'm glad Komen raises money to fund research that will one day find a cure for cancer.  I'm equally glad that their are organizations out there seeking to do the same for brain tumors, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.

What do you think?

Well, decide and then watch this clip from the Colbert Report.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Top Ten Scams in Kansas City for 2010

1.  Illegal or unlicensed Small Loan companies – Several Payday Loan companies claim they are in the Kansas City area, but are actually located outside the United States.  Several that use addresses in the Kansas City area are located in the Federation of Nevis and St. Kitts, West Indies.  When we determine that he companies are unlicensed to do business in Missouri, they claim they do not have to follow American law.  That is obviously not true.  We have worked with regulatory agencies and raised awareness about these companies enough to get cease & desist orders against them in a few states.  Unfortunately, they change their names and start anew. These companies often take money from consumer checking accounts without permission and continue to deduct funds long after the loans are paid off many times over. Kansas City was hammered hard by these groups last year.

2. Debt Negotiation/Loan Modification – These companies became so problematic that they prompted Congressional action in the form of the 2010 Credit Debt Settlement Act.  Consumers in financial trouble were turning to businesses making claims that they could reduce debt in exchange for a substantial up-front fee. Taking the advice of the debt settlement companies, consumers no longer paid their debts.  They found themselves in worse situations with less money and more debt.  Some even lost their homes.

3. Work-at-Home opportunities/Mystery Shopping – The BBB has had Work-at-Home opportunities on its top ten scam list for nearly 100 years. Stuffing envelopes, assembling fliers, mailing forms and any other variation of the scheme will never make consumers money. They are always scams. Mystery shopping exists, but the demand is so high for mystery shoppers the companies rarely need to recruit.  Receiving mail or emails about mystery shopping will always lead you to scams.

4. Sweepstakes – That formal looking piece of mail may make consumers think they’ve won it big, but they haven’t. These companies send out advertisements that look like notifications of prize winnings. They always ask for money.  No one needs to pay money if they’ve won money.

5. Advance Fee Loans/Counterfeit Check Wire Transfer – It is primarily a Canadian scam that targets Americans. These groups mail out forged checks stolen from companies in the United States and say it is to pay the taxes on their lottery winnings or some other nonsense. They ask people to send back a portion of the money and to keep the rest.  The consumer’s bank will not figure out the check is fake until it’s too late. One of these cons can easily knock out someone’s savings.

6. Timeshare Resale – They ask for a substantial amount of money up-front.  Consumers never hear from them again.  In 2010, we had two open up in the Kansas City area and disappear when they ran out of victims.

7. Homeopathy (quackery/miracle cures) – The Acai berry is the most famous of late, but quackery has been around since a time long before the BBB.  We’ve fought it our entire existence.  Miracle cures, weight loss “secrets,” and bracelets that balance the natural energy of your body are all scams.  They sell smoke and mirrors.

8. Phishing – This has become an epidemic.  Social networking sites are plagued with fake offers and provocative advertising aimed at stealing personal information.  Phishing scams can do serious damage if they get a hold of the right information.  Thankfully, many social networkers are savvy and quickly warn their friends.

9. Census Scams – As with any major government action, scams hitch a ride.  Every ten years, scammers send out mass mailers and emails claiming to be the Census Bureau.  They hope you will provide sensitive financial information.  Now that 2010 has passed, this one will probably disappear for another decade.

10.Haiti Earthquake Scams – Con artists posing as charitable organizations is an old concept.  This year, however, Americans were exposed to a major disaster close to home and we felt compelled to donate to the ruined country.  Con artists were all over it, blasting emails, sending fliers, telemarketing, forging checks, creating websites.  A good number of donors called the BBB to make sure they weren’t dealing with scams.  Not everyone was so fortunate to avoid them.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Unscrupulous Personalities

Investigative journalist Bethany McClean provides one of the most accurate depictions of the modern day Robber Barons I have yet seen. Her assessments of the people behind the housing market crisis are better described and more in depth than I could manage.  My own experiences with unscrupulous businessmen fall in line perfectly with hers. If you want to know what the bad guys are actually like, watch this.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Scams of the Week: Jan 3, 2011

Penny Auctions - There are legitimate penny auctions and even some are BBB Accredited, but the scam sites far outnumber the legitimate sites. These sites have outstanding looking products like big screen HDTVs, cameras, golf clubs, etc. and the bids increase by only a penny at a time. The auctions makes lots of money because they sell bids.  Each bid costs the bidder a dollar, so even if they lose the auction, they spend money. It's like gambling to win auction items. The scam sites post fake auctions as an incentive, drive up bids with fake bidders (shilling), don't deliver products, steal personal information such as credit card or bank numbers. I found this handy site while looking into them: http://tomuse.com/penny-auction-fraud-scam-cheat-bidders/

Better Health/Get Slim Package - The company also goes by "Enjoy Your Body Today." This company advertises a free trial for weight loss pills, then locks people into an "agreement."  Customers complain that the company charges $99 plus $9 per month before they have a chance to try the product.  Despite coming to the Better Business Bureau's attention less than 20 days ago, they already have an F rating and 12 complaints. Click HERE for their business review

Copy Toner Scam - We received a call from a business who was called by an anonymous person asking for the serial number on the business's copier. If the caller gets the serial number, they will attempt to sell toner for the copier at marked up prices.  Sometimes these callers take credit card information and run. Sometimes, they send cheap toner and say that the company is now locked into a binding agreement.  If someone calls asking for your Copier serial number, just hang up.

Platinum Online Group - To start with, they have an F rating with the BBB for unanswered complaints and 66 complaints within the last year. They infiltrate people's bank accounts and deduct money for payday loans.  The problem arises when the customers never had payday loans with Platinum and had never heard of them.  Our efforts to even locate the company have come up empty.  We've run into several of these types of companies and many are located outside the United States in the Federation of Nevis/St. Kitts.