Back in 2009, when Teresa Yeast's husband was laid off from the job he had held for 17 years, she began searching for ways to earn some money. But with two disabled children to care for, she knew she couldn't work outside the home.

One day Yeast (pictured, right), 45, noticed an ad in an area newspaper looking for people to work from home creating tiny pins shaped like angels out of beads and ribbon. When the same ad for Darling Angel Pins appeared in her local paper in Platea, Pa., she decided to investigate.

Online, she found an attractive, professional-looking website. "They advertised that they made donations to the American Cancer Society, autism groups, all these great causes, so of course I was drawn to that," she explains. "I thought it would be really great to get involved."

The money sounded good, too. "They told me they would pay me $2.50 for every pin I assembled for them, that I could make as many as I wanted, that they would sell them." All she had to do was mail the company a $500 deposit for the supplies. She'd then make a sample pin, submit it to the company for review and, once approved, begin production.

Yeast mailed her $500, received a box of supplies -- and became one of the millions of Americans victimized by financial scams.



Consumer fraud -- the intentional deceit of a consumer -- is nothing new, unfortunately. For decades there are have been scams related to mortgage loans, credit cards, employment opportunities, lotteries and identity theft, to name just a few. But in recent years, as the American economy has struggled with a high rate of unemployment, a collapsed housing market and a stubborn recession, scammers have seized on Americans' financial fears in new ways.

"There are a suite of scams that concentrate on people that suffer financially and we've really been going after those," says Steven Baker, director of the Midwest region of the Federal Trade Commission. "Certainly it's an increasing problem of people taking advantage of that suffering. It's really bad because you're holding on by your fingernails in the first place and then they steal what little money you have left."

In 2010 more than 1.3 million Americans complained of consumer fraud. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Unlike Yeast, most don't speak up.

The Dawning Realization That You've Been Had

It didn't take her long to become wary, but by then, it was too late.

"They didn't send me the wire I needed to complete the pins," says Yeast, "and that got me a little suspicious, but when I called them they said, 'Oh, assemble the one pin, send it back, and once we make sure it's of quality, we'll send you the rest of the supplies." So she did.

Except, instead of receiving permission to begin producing more pins, the company rejected her little angel (pictured, right). She made a few changes and sent it back. Again, the company returned it. "It went back and forth, back and forth. I thought to myself that there is no way this pin is not of good quality." She called to discuss the problem. Initially they refused her calls. Then they began saying they'd never received her sample pin.

Eventually, Yeast told them she wanted her $500 deposit returned, which the company had said would always be an option. They refused. So Yeast called an attorney, who discovered that Darling Angel Pins was a multimillion-dollar fraud. The company never accepted anyone's pins. instead repeatedly rejecting every sample until their "potential contractors" simply gave up and walked away, leaving behind their $500 deposits.

Infuriated, Yeast sent letters to "anybody and everybody who would listen." One day, she got a call from the FTC, which wanted to hear more about her story. The national investigation of online fraud that she helped with succeeded, among other things, in shuttering Darling Angel Pins and a dozen other similarly fraudulent companies, and seizing their assets.

A Shocking Number of Scam Artists

While it's hard to measure the size of the problem -- consumers often neglect to report being conned, either because they don't know where to turn for help or because they are embarrassed that they've been victimized -- experts agree it's big.

In the last five years, 6.1 million consumer complaints have been tracked in the Consumer Sentinel Network, a database made available exclusively to law enforcement officials and a clearinghouse for complaints filed with various agencies. In 2010 alone, consumer complaints totaled over $1.7 billion.

And that's only what gets reported. According to Baker, a few years ago his agency conducted a random telephone survey and discovered that only 8.2% of victims reported complaints. "In other words, 90% don't. And we know that from our own cases that we only have a couple of hundred complaints and it turns out there are thousands [of victims]. If I didn't do this for a living, I'd never believe how much fraud is out there."

Tailoring the Cons to the Times

While there hasn't necessarily been an increase in the number of frauds, their shape has evolved to keep pace with the changing economy. "Scams follow the headlines, so the people who do these scams, if they see that a lot of people are unemployed or are at risk of foreclosure, they will go after them, will design something to go after those people," explains Peter Kaplan, deputy director of public affairs at the FTC.

For example, in response to the collapsed housing bubble, there are now scammers who offer to help struggling homeowners to avoid foreclosure, often by promising to secure a mortgage loan modification in exchange for an upfront fee. Frequently, the scammer takes the money, makes maybe one phone call to the loan servicer, tells the homeowner they tried and failed to arrange a modification, and calls it a day, pocketing hundreds or even thousands of dollars the distressed homeowner could have put towards their mortgage.

"People have had such a hard time with their mortgage loan, and such a runaround, that they really think it's better to pay somebody than to work with their servicer or housing counselor," says Yolanda McGill, senior counsel for the Fair Housing and Fair Lending Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. "People who get declined for a modification by their lender and want one figure they can go out and pay for it." Scammers know this, and capitalize on it to make a buck at the homeowner's expense.

Other increasingly common frauds leverage the fact that 9.1% of Americans are unemployed. Scammers may offer to help a consumer to start a medical billing practice in exchange for an upfront fee, or advertise an opportunity to start selling a product that doesn't exist.

When It Sounds Too Good to Be True ...

"It's really terrible," says Monica Vaca, assistant director in the FTC's Marketing Division. "These folks are really looking for a chance to work, so they'll pay money to send away to learn about the opportunity. They're not sitting back and saying 'Oh well, I'll just sit back and see where life takes me.' They're really trying to take control of their destiny, really trying to earn money for themselves. Instead, they lose their money and then they also lose their aspiration."

Unfortunately for Yeast, she may never get back her $500 deposit. "It may not sound like a lot of money, but to me, that was my mortgage payment. Literally, at that time, we had a $500 mortgage payment."

She does, however, feel empowered. "I will tell anybody who will listen to be careful with opportunities that sound too good to be true. I mean, of course it's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed. I'm smart. I am college educated. And I got duped. But if I say nothing about it, the scammers keep doing it to other people. So I tell people, 'I know. I get it. Even though you wonder if it's too good to be true, you'll just try anything to work, to feed your kids, to find your next mortgage payment. But that's how you get hooked.'"

Loren Berlin is a reporter with the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. She can be reached at loren.berlin@teamaol.com, on Twitter at @LorenBerlin, and on Facebook.

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jstagynjax

While I have to say that if you're too dim to fall for one of these scams, I do hope you learn your lesson. That being said, everyone one of these scamming mother f'ers need to be dragged into the street, have their skin ripped off by wild buffalo, dumped into a tub of boiling vinegar, while having their eyes plucked out by ravenous parakeets, then finally thrown off the rim of a really tall volcano, so they can contemplate their deeds on the way down.

October 13 2011 at 10:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard

Is Herman Cain of type of scam artist on finances? Cain is a charming fellow with an impressive past. Nevertheless, he has not published details on his 999 plan. Some people assume that he incorporates all the caveats within the flat tax, but it is not written that way to date. It would be, as I understand it, particularly onerous to retired persons. Retired persons have no payroll tax obligation to offset the gouging that would occur on the dangerous national sales tax. And since there are "no loopholes" would social security benefits be taxed at 9%?

October 13 2011 at 10:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Richard's comment
dmgg711

The more I hear of his 999 scheme the more I know it is just a distraction from disclosing his true Tea Party agenda of gettig rid of Medicare, Medicaid and privatizing or cutting Social Security.

I give Cain until the end of the year before he joins Bachman,n and the rest of the Republican Tea Party candidates, once the American people wise up to his dancing around implementation of permanently cutting services for seniors and the poor.

October 14 2011 at 12:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
populux

But why didn't she go out and look for a job and her husband then stay home?

October 12 2011 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jorgeodelarosa

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October 12 2011 at 5:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Syllogizer

Yes, it is true. The economy that is so hard on the rest of us is a boom time for thieves and robbers. This is yet another reason all the pundits and red necks blaming the unemployed for their plight should be so ashamed of themselves: it is only the thieves, robbers and other dishonest who are thriving now.

October 12 2011 at 12:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Zack S

The biggest $$$ scamers I have run into in the last 3 years have been realtors and as expected - car dealers. Oh, wait, they were there before as well. Of course I'm only speaking about my experience locally (Vero Beach FL) where the realtors are still using photos of houses when they were built for reselling them 10 years later, exaggerating the square footage of rooms, house, and lot, totally mis-representing the building materials they were made of, omitting critical historical events such as flooding during hurricanes, obvious mold infestations, termite activity, then you get down to manipulating the price of the house with straw-man bidders - the list goes on an on. Buyer beware has never been more true than in real estate and most especially short sales and foreclosures.

October 12 2011 at 11:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bobseetwins3

THERE IS A PLACE IN HELL FOR THOSE SCAMMERS!!

October 11 2011 at 9:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Keith O Ellis

The other scam I have been inudated with lately, that no one has mentioned, is the endless calls from non profits asking for donations. I always refuse to make ANY donation by phone. Why give out your credit card number over the phone when you really have no idea to whom you are talking? Even if they say they are calling from a legitimate charity you cannot be 100% sure. I always say "Send me something in the mail and I will consider your charity. Please take my name off your calling list" I have checked out several of these supposed charities on line and they are often just another scam. Some of the callers get nasty because they only get paid for the contributions they get over the phone and have no interest in sending out pledges requests by mail. I live in Florida part of the year and this is a very big problem down there. I don't get these kind of requests by phone in New York. In Florida I sometimes get 3 or 4 of these calls a day. I have called the phone company and asked if there is any way they can put a block on these type of calls the same way they can block calls from people wanting to sell you things, but they claim they cannot. I would like to know why they can't. It is a real nusance! I guess I will just have to stop answering my phone and let the answering machine pick up unless my caller ID identifies the caller. However, for some reason, more and more people are blocking their identity.

October 11 2011 at 8:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jcalhouno1

It is sad that anyone would use such organizations like the "American Cancer Society" to draw in people, who have in their hearts to do a good deed. I think saying that if a person chose to do this is a "moron", I think to never want to help in anyway makes a person heartless. I pray the FTC really gets these people, because her angel is absolutely beautiful. As a cancer survivor, I commend those who do good deeds,

October 11 2011 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rita

HOW MANY TIMES DO PEOPLE HAVE TO SEE THIS ON THE NEWS AND ON THE NET BEFORE THEY GET IT.ARE PEOPLE REALLY THAT STUPID? I GUESS SO. IF YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP FRONT MONEY DONT DO IT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

October 11 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rita's comment
Sonali

These are desperate people. That doesn't mean they are stupid. They just want something to turn out positive in their lives and are willing to work hard for it. But they get scammed by the con artists preying on their hope for a better future.

October 12 2011 at 8:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply