The top consumer scams of 2011

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 . You can sign up to receive scam alerts by e-mail. Check further at 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:

Job scam:

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 .

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 via Western Union. A deposited check takes a couple of days to clear, whereas wired money is gone instantly. When the original check bounces, you are out whatever money you wired and you're still stuck with the old couch.

Phishing scam:

"Phishing" is when you receive a suspicious phone call asking for personal information or an email that puts a virus on your computer to hunt for your data. The most pernicious phishing scam last year disguised itself as official communication from the National Automated Clearing House Association, which facilitates the secure transfer of billions of electronic transactions every year. The email claims one of your transactions did not go through, and it hopes you react quickly and click on the link before thinking it through. It may take you to a fake banking site "verify" you account information, or it may download malware to infiltrate your computer.

Identity theft scam:

You get a call in your hotel room in the middle of the night. It's the front desk clerk, very apologetic, saying the hotel's computer has crashed and he need to get your credit card number again, or he must have gotten the number wrong because the transaction won't go through, and could you please read the number back so they can fix the problem? Scammers are counting on you being too sleepy to catch on that the call isn't from the hotel at all, but from someone outside who knows the direct-dial numbers for the guest rooms. By the time morning rolls around, your credit card has been on a major shopping spree.

Financial scam:

Since the federal government announced or expanded several mortgage relief programs, all kinds of sound-alike websites have popped up to try to fool consumers into parting with their money. Some sound like a government agency, or even part of BBB or other nonprofit consumer organization. Most ask for an upfront fee to help you deal with your mortgage company or the government (services you could easily do yourself for free), and almost all leave you in more debt than when you started.

Sales scam:

Penny auctions online are very popular because it seems like you can get something useful - cameras, computers, etc. - for way below retail. But you pay a small fee for each bid (usually 50 cents to $1) and if you aren't the winner, you lose that bid money. Winners often are not even the top bidder, just the last bidder when time runs out. Although not all penny auction sites are scams, some are being investigated as online gambling. BBB recommends you treat them the same way you would legal gambling in a casino - know exactly how the bidding works, set a limit for yourself, and be prepared to walk away before you go over that limit.

BBB phishing scam:

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people have gotten emails that look very much like an official notice from BBB. The subject line says something like "Complaint Against Your Business," and the instructions tell the recipient to either click on a link or open an attachment to get the details. If recipients do either, a malicious virus is launched on their computer. The virus can steal banking information, passwords and other critical pieces of information needed for cybertheft. The BBB is working with security consultants and federal law enforcement to track down the source of these emails and has shut down dozens of hijacked websites. Anyone who has opened an attachment or clicked on a link should run a complete system scan using reputable anti-virus software. If your computer is networked with others, all machines on the network should be scanned, as well.