We want a better deal, a way out of debt, a job, a cure-all for our health or something for nothing.
Factor in the challenging economy and more sophisticated crooks, and the stage is set for more and more people to be taken advantage of by con artists.
Often, people who haven't been seeking anything are victims of hackers who steal credit information and make fraudulent charges to their bank accounts or credit or debit cards.
Michael Galvin, vice president of communications for the West Palm Beach-based Better Business Bureau of Southeast Florida and the Caribbean, said the BBB investigates thousands of scams every year. Some have been around for years, and others are new.
The best defense against the scammers is to be aware of what's going on, Galvin said. It pays to do your homework and check to see if any problems have been reported about a company or product before doing business. Go the BBB's resource on investigations from BBBs around the country at www.bbb.org/scam . You can sign up to receive scam alerts by e-mail. Check further at www.sunbiz.org to see if a business is legitimate and registered with the state.
"People are more vulnerable than ever," Galvin said. "The general population is aging. There will be more people targeted by scammers."
Galvin advises using a credit card instead of a debit card, because you will have a third party on your side to help get rid of any fraudulent charges. Also, don't do business with or give any information to someone who calls you on the phone or contacts you by email out of the blue wanting to help solve your debt, foreclosure or other problem. Instead, deal directly with a local firm after checking it out.
Desperation about finances is another reason people are taken by a scam. When a letter arrives in their mailbox telling them they've won a lottery somewhere, perhaps Spain or France, they believe it and are duped into sending account information or money.
"The most expensive word in the world is the word 'free,' " Galvin said.
People who have signed up for "free trials" for items such as acai berry supplements online have learned this. They pay shipping and handling and soon, their credit card is hit with additional charges. The charges recur each month and are difficult to stop.
"If it seems too good to be true, walk away," Galvin said.
The BBB has picked the top scams of 2011 in major categories. They are:
A person applying for a job online is told that in order to start the job, the candidate has to fill out a "credit report" or provide bank information for direct deposit of their "paychecks." The online forms are nothing more than a way to capture sensitive personal data - Social Security number, bank accounts, etc. - that can easily be used for identity theft. And, of course, there is no job, either.
Sweepstakes and lottery scam:
Last year's top sweepstakes scam was undoubtedly the email claiming to be from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announcing that the recipient was the winner of $1 million from the popular social networking site. These kinds of scams often use celebrities or other famous names to make their offer seem more genuine. If you aren't sure, don't click on the link but instead go directly to the homepage of the company mentioned. If they are really giving away $1 million, there will be some kind of announcement on their website.
Social media/online dating scam:
Viral videos claiming to show everything from grisly footage of Osama bin Laden's death to the latest celebrity high jinks have shown up on social media sites, often looking as if they have been shared by a friend. When you click on the link, you are prompted to "upgrade your Flash player," but the file you end up downloading contains a worm that logs into your social media account, sends similar messages to your friends, and searches for your personal data. The next time you see a sensational headline for the latest viral video, resist the urge to peek.
Home improvement scam:
This centers on so-called home improvement contractors who often leave your home worse than they found it. They usually knock on your door with a story or a deal - the roofer who can spot some missing shingles, the paver with some leftover asphalt who can give you a great deal on driveway resealing. A large percentage of BBB's accredited businesses are home contractors who want to make sure you know they are legitimate, trustworthy and dependable. Find one at www.bbb.org/search .
Check cashing scam:
Two legitimate companies - craigslist and Western Union - are used for an inordinate amount of scamming these days, and especially check cashing scams. Here's how it works: Someone contacts you via a craigslist posting, maybe for a legitimate reason like buying your old couch or perhaps through a scam like hiring you as a secret shopper. Either way, they send you a check for more than the amount they owe you, and they ask you to deposit it into your bank account and then send them the difference