Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Fantastic Business Collaboration

"I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer."


-Abraham Lincoln
I love it when businesses collaborate for the good of their industry and the people they serve.  I'm also an avowed beer snob who prefers craft brews to anything that comes in an aluminum can or whose name graces a NASCAR racing suit. 

So you can imagine my delight to see that two of my favorite small craft breweries collaborating to produce what I can only imagine will be a fantastic product.
This is very good news for the Kansas City business community.  And even better news for those of us who like good beer.

Salud!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Charity Wednesdays: BBB Wise Giving Alliance - Your Source for Info on BIG Charities

You know you can check here for info about the reliability of charities that exclusively operate in the Kansas City metro. 

Our partner, the BBB's Wise Giving Alliance (WGA) is a fantastic source for info on national charities that work hard to serve people all over our country.  Many of the large charities that you know - Alzheimer's Association, Children International, United Way of America, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, etc. have been reviewed and evaluated by the WGA.

WGA is nationally recognized for its expertise in assessing charity accountability. And here in Kansas City, we often rely on them for help with our own evaluation efforts.  They are a great organization to have on your side.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scams of the Week: April 25, 2011

More Tax Scams - According to the IRS: "Scammers have been targeting those who receive SSI or other governmental assistance, telling them that they are eligible for a tax rebate, and that the scammer will file a Form 1040X for a fee. If you hear of this in your area please notify TIGTA. (800-366-44848)." 


Cheapflixx.com - They say they offer streaming movies for free.  However, the movies have been newly released in theaters, so they wouldn't be legally streaming on the internet and especially not for free. Before being able to stream these movies, the site makes people sign up for one of several offers, including a FREE $1000 Apple gift certificate. All you have to do is type in all of your information and they'll mail it to you.  It is almost certain that they will sell your information to anyone who wants it and you will be knee deep in more scams.  This company caught my eye because they hired a marketing company that fraudulently utilizes Twitter.  The marketing company creates Twitter profiles that use the same phrases and tweets no matter what they're promoting.  The profiles have pictures of invariably voluptuous, scantily clad, women.  So far, they all make the same comments such as "It's a scam I'm telling you" or "With inspiration from the Better Business Bureau."  Avoid any links from Twitter accounts that have ever made those comments.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Scams of the Week: April 18, 2011

Roofing Scams - Lots of them surface every time there's a major storm.  With hail damage in the area recently, roofers are coming from other states, knocking on doors and getting people to buy new roofs.  Most roofers are fine.  Even some from outside the area are very good. However, do your research on any company with which you consider doing business. Many that have come to the area are unlicensed and uninsured. Some are just scam artists who fly into town, demand money up front and then disappear with it. Check with your city to make sure they have the proper licensing. Check with the BBB and look at their complaint record.

Epsilon Security Breach Phishing Scam - A lot of Better Business Bureaus have noted scams in their areas that took advantage of the Epsilon breach. Epsilon is an email marketing company for heavyweight companies like Best Buy, JP Morgan/Chase and US Bank (and lots and LOTS of others).  Their database was hacked and personal information on countless people was compromised. Including mine. Three times. Scammers leapt onto the opportunity and compounded everyone's misery. They are sending around emails with cloned IP addresses or Citigroup or US Bank or one of the other companies who lost data. The emails frequently ask consumers to verify their personal information or to download software that will determine whether their personal information was compromised.  They are all attempts to acquire personal information, so if the consumer's data wasn't already stolen, it would be as soon as he or she responded to the email.  If you're worried about your personal information, contact the numbers on the back of your credit cards or call the customer service lines on the businesses' official websites. CBS has a list of the companies effected.

Instant Internet Lifestyle (Get More Momentum) - I'm so sick of these internet "wealth generators" (notice that it doesn't name a product, service or anything like one--you just miraculously make money).  I normally don't list these because most of these companies are ridiculously litigious. This one made the mistake of saying something was "free" when it actually requires customers to buy additional material--a big no-no. Like EVERY OTHER wealth generating business opportunity, this guy, Lee McIntyre claims that he's THE most successful internet entrepreneur ever. Like every other similar opportunity, he says he makes thousands or even hundreds of thousands per month with his system. And like the others, he also claims to be reluctant to hand over these super-secrets...but he will if you give him money to learn his program.  I would recommend that if you want to deal with any of these types of companies (which I am NOT recommending) that you have a clear understanding of exactly what you'll be doing when you give them your credit card info.  If the business doesn't clearly outline how its system works and claims that it is some sort of "secret," don't bother.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

All About Sweepstakes

Sweepstakes have earned a spurious reputation. I've been steeped in sweepstakes scams for so many years, it's difficult to believe that there was a time when they weren't around. Most lotteries of any kind were illegal from the early 1900s until the 1960s. In April 1963, New Hampshire passed a law that allowed the first legal lottery in the United States since 1894 [1]. Missouri also passed an amendment to their state lottery laws in the same year.  It took a few more years for the courts to hammer out how to interpret the newly formed laws. Because there were so few lotteries for so long, scams had nothing to mimic. Because scammers couldn't take advantage of the existence of legitimate lotteries, they didn't bother much with creating fake ones until lotteries were again legalized. I couldn't find a single reference to Sweepstakes or illegal lotteries in 50 years worth of BBB files (approx. 1920-1970).

In 1970, the FTC opened an investigation on Reader's Digest, who allegedly misled their sweepstakes entrants about the likelihood of winning, the amount they could win, that most tickets are some sort of winner, and that they underrepresented the difficulty in obtaining the winnings. When the FTC prepared to charge Reader's Digest with violating section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 USC 45.1, Reader's Digest chose to sign a voluntary compliance agreement to correct its allegedly deceptive advertising and pay a penalty of $1.75 million. By doing so, Reader's Digest admitted no wrong doing. The FTC accused Reader's Digest of violating the agreement in 1973, 1974, 1976, 1978 and 1980 (more or less continuously) before the United States Appellant court ultimately upheld government's original complaint [2].

It was all downhill from there.  Misleading advertising branched out, incorporating new elements such as advance fees. Scams grew. New technology increased the size of the pool from which to lure victims. New incentives such as ID theft caused the creation of phishing scams claiming to be lotteries. Since I have worked for the BBB, Sweepstakes/Lotteries has been on our top ten scams list every year. There are countless variations of sweepstakes scams and they are quick to evolve. I will mention the most prominent.

Sweepstakes that require fees. There is a long list of the different reasons they give for asking for these fees. They also ask for quite disparate amounts. It could be as low as $5.00 or as high as $10,000.  Low cost sweepstakes are far more common, as they are less likely to attract the attention of law enforcement and can quickly issue refunds if a consumer raises too many alarms. Consumers are also unlikely to report a scam to authorities if they lose ten or twenty bucks.  Even if they did, consumer protection agencies have bigger fish to fry.  Most sweepstakes also meet superficial legal requirements and only with great difficulty can law enforcement determine if they are doing something illegal (besides the deceptive advertisements). Unless the violations of law are obvious or pointed out, consumer protection agencies may choose not to spend their resources on going after a sweepstakes company.

Several sweepstakes companies say that the fee is for a packet of information.  They intentionally advertise in a way that makes it appear that mailing recipients have already won a prize. They then ask for money. When pressed, some admit that they don't offer any winnings; they sell a packet of information about companies that might offer winnings. So, when their mailing states that people have been pre-selected to get $2,000,000, the mailing recipient not only has't won anything, they haven't even entered a drawing or contest yet.

The mailings are carefully worded to give the distinct impression that mailing recipients have already won. The recipient believes that all they would have to do is contact the award company and pay a nominal fee, then the fortune will be mailed.  Here's an example of how they word the mailing: "We will begin payout authorization directly after deadline transferring your "Potential Status" to "Confirmed Winner" of $1,000,000.00 (One Million Dollars) according to the terms and conditions of this letter if you have and provide the original preselected winning number."  If read literally, it says that the mailing recipient has not yet won a million dollars. That's all. It doesn't say that they will win a million dollars or that they are likely to. It explains what would happen if someone theoretically won a million dollars.  It doesn't even say it will pay the winner a million dollars.  It says that they will "begin payout authorization," which translates to: "we can pay you if you win." The sentence is so convoluted that it cancels out everything in it, leaving the recipient with a completely vacant statement.

Here's another common example of careful wording. "We are pleased to inform you that we have identified $1,151,212.00 (One Million One Hundred Fifty-One Thousand Two Hundred And Twelve Dollars) in pending, unpaid cash award opportunities as recorded in the most recent documentation that is now CONFIRMED and GUARANTEED to you."  Translation? It is possible for you to enter our contests where we have $1,151,212 that we may someday pay winners. And that is if the recipient enters each and every contest they have to offer.

The mailings are on thick card stock paper, with expensive, colored ink that mimics the appearance of certificates, money, degrees and other official documents.  They have large dollar amounts all over the paper. It makes several people believe that unless they won serious money, a company wouldn't spend so much on high quality mailings.

Contests of Skill - Paying to enter a prize drawing competes with state lotteries and is illegal, so sweepstakes companies had to come up with a way around this.  They turned lotteries into contests of skill.  Consumers must complete simple math problems or something like that to participate in a drawing. Some companies offer rounds in which entrants must pass a mathematical problem to reach the next round.  Every round costs money to enter, but the first few rounds are extremely simple math problems, such as 5 x 5 = ?  This guarantees that most, if not all, entrants will participate in, and pay for, more than one round. I wouldn't have problems with these types of contests if they didn't horrendously mislead all the entrants with mailing like those described above.

Foreign Lotteries - This one is easy. If any lottery or sweepstakes from another country contacts you and tells you that you've won money, throw the mailing away, hang up the phone, spit in its face, whatever.  All foreign lotteries are illegal.

Fraudulent Check Sweepstakes - Sometimes people get random checks in the mail.  They never entered a contest and they've never heard of the company that sent them the check.  The check is usually between $750 and $3000.  The check is fraudulent.  Enclosed with the fraudulent check is a letter explaining that the recipient has won a sweepstakes.  The letter explains check is to cover the cost of taxes on the winnings.  The  company asks the recipient to wire money back to them.

At this point, alarm bells should be sounding in the check recipient's head, but much of the time, the desire for large amounts of money overcomes caution.  That's what scammers count on.  It will take banks about ten days to figure out a check is fake.  That gives scammers ten days to convince people to send them thousands of dollars. It frequently works.

[1] History of the Sweepstakes. 1996. p.158. http://www.thehistoryofsweepstakesparttwo.com/
[2] United States v. Reader's Digest. 1981. http://openjurist.org/662/f2d/955/united-states-v-readers-digest-association-inc

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Charity Wednesday - Tracking Disaster Giving

Want to know how much money US charities have collected for the relief efforts in Japan?  Check this out from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (disclaimer:  I got my master's degree from IU.  I am partial toward all things Hoosier).   On the Center on Philanthropy's site you can also examine how much money charities collected for other disasters.  It's really cool - if you're in to that sort of thing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Charity Wednesdays - Finding a Need and Filling It

Last week I shared about why I love working in the nonprofit sector.  Today I want to share my most favorite thing about charities - they are filled with people who see a need and then find a way to fill it.

Sleepyhead Beds exemplifies this spirit to a T.  It was started by Monica Starr who, while volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, discovered that many children simply don't have a bed of their own to sleep on every night.  She saw that need and has started a charity to fill it.  Her organization is small (too small, in fact, to qualify for review by the BBB) and her mission is simple:  to provide a cozy bed and warm bedding to children in need.  The team at Sleepyhead Beds can tell you lots about why getting a good night's sleep is important for kids, but today I simply want to applaud Monica Starr for exemplifying the very best  in the charitable sector.  She saw a need and found a way to fill it.  Bravo and Thank You.

For more about Sleepyhead Beds, you can read this recent story in the Kansas City Star.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Scams of the Week: April 5, 2011

Miracle Mineral Supplement - This one  makes me laugh, so I had to include it. From the website miraclecure.org, the product boasts about being a cure or permanent control for "AIDS, Hepatitis A, B, and C, Tuberculosis, Malaria and most cancer." It's been proven by "scientific clinical trials in Africa" There are no links to these trials.  If a mineral supplement cured or even helped all those diseases, the makers of the treatment would be world-famous Nobel-laureates by now.  The claims are on par with the tall tales of Pecos Bill riding tornados. They have about the same level of plausibility.

American Funding - On a more depressing note, this company has picked up where G.F. Institute left off.  American Funding claims that consumers have a grant of $20,978 pending.  All the consumers have to do is call 1-877-857-6285 and verify some information. Once you call, you are asked to pay $12.99 to receive it. Of course this is nonsense and we had to go through the same thing with a business calling itself G.F. Institute back in 2008-2009. After G.F. Institute was crushed by false advertising and mail fraud suits, I thought they would be gone for good. However, this new company is doing the exact same thing and even mails out a green postcard like their predecessors.  FYI: no one can have an pending grant unless he or she applied for one, went through the grant-writing process, which helps to create a detailed proposal on how the recipient will use the funds, and submitted it to grants.gov.

Talent Agency Seminar...Class...thingies - These companies advertise that your child is destined for silver screen.  They say that only a very select few kids will be represented by their agents and they must audition.  It all sounds ok until they select your child and say they won't represent him or her unless they are trained up--and of course, you can only use their services for this training.  The classes run anywhere from $2000-7000.  These things are similar to the same money-making opportunities that require people to buy extraordinarily expensive training programs to make any money.  What's worse, that "small percentage" of children selected isn't small.  It's about 3/4 of the children who audition.