Top 10 Scams of 2011

January 03, 2012
Better Business Bureau released its list of top 10 scams of 2011 today. The list cites job hunters, home owners and internet users as top targets for fraudulent activity. 

“The internet is a gold mine for scammers,” said Gary Almond, president of BBB serving Northeast California. “Some of these scams are annual players, but the rise of social media has added a few new twists to our list.”

The list is compiled using data from Better Business Bureaus across the United States, documented via spikes in complaints and consumer inquiries. Following is the list, in no particular order, of scams and rip offs that took advantage of consumers across the U.S. in 2011: 

Top Job Scam

BBB sees many secret shopper schemes, work-from-home scams, and other phony job offers, but this job-related scam can steal identities. The emails, websites and online applications look professional. Candidates are interviewed for the job (usually over the phone) and then receive an offer. In order to start the job, however, the candidate has to fill out a “credit report” or provide bank information for direct deposit. The online forms are nothing more than a way to capture sensitive personal data – Social Security number or bank accounts – that can easily be used for identity theft.

Top Sweepstakes and Lottery Scam

This year’s top sweepstakes scam was an email claiming to be from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announcing the recipient was the winner of $1 million from the popular social networking site. BBB always urges consumers to never click links they are not sure about. 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. 

Top Social Media Scam

Viral videos claiming to show everything from grisly footage of Osama bin Laden’s death to the latest celebrity hijinks have shown up on social media sites, often looking as if they have been shared by a friend. When one clicks on the link, a prompt to “upgrade your Flash player” appears, but the file that downloads contains a worm that logs into the social media account, sends similar messages to the recipient’s friends, and searches for personal data. 

Top Home Improvement Scam

Always near the top of BBB complaint data are home improvement contractors who leave homes worse than they found them. They usually knock on the door with a story or a deal – the roofer who can spot some missing shingles or the paver with some leftover asphalt who can give a great deal on driveway resealing. Itinerant contractors move around, keeping a step ahead of the law. The worst are those who move in after a natural disaster, taking advantage of desperate homeowners who need immediate help and may not be as suspicious as they would be under normal circumstances. 

Top Check Cashing Scam

They contact a seller via a posting and send the seller a check for more than the amount they owe. The seller is then asked to deposit it into a bank account and send them the difference via wire transfer. A deposited check takes a couple of days to clear, whereas wired money is gone instantly. When the original check bounces, the seller is out of the money wired and stuck with whatever her or she was trying to sell.

Top Phishing Scam

“Phishing” is when one receives a suspicious phone call asking for personal information or an email that installs a virus to hunt for personal data. The most pernicious phishing scam this year disguised itself as official communication from NACHA – the National Automated Clearing House Association – which facilitates the secure transfer of billions of electronic transactions every year. The email claims one of the recipients’ transactions did not go through and urges the consumer to click a link. It may take the consumer to a fake banking site to “verify” account information or it may download malware.

Top Identity Theft Scam

This scam is so prevalent that many hotels are posting warnings in their lobby. Here’s how it works: The guest receives a call via the phone in the room in the middle of the night. It’s the front desk clerk, very apologetic, saying their computer has crashed and they need to get the guest’s credit card number again, or they must have gotten the number wrong because the transaction won’t go through. Scammers are counting on the guest being too sleepy to catch on that the call isn’t from the hotel at all. By morning, the credit card has been fraudulently charged.

Top Financial Scam

After the federal government announced or expanded several mortgage relief programs this year, many sound-alike websites popped up attempting 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 deal with the mortgage company or government (services easily done for free), and almost all leave consumers in more debt than when they started. 

Top Sales Scam

Sales scams are always popular, but the internet has introduced a whole new way to rip people off. Penny auctions are popular because it seems like one can get something useful - cameras, computers, etc. – for below retail. Consumers actually pay a small fee for each bid and if they do not win, they lose all the bid money. Winners often are not the top bidder, but the last bidder when time runs out. Although not all penny auction sites are scams, BBB recommends treating them the same way one would legal gambling – know exactly how the bidding works, set a limit, and be prepared to walk away before exceeding that limit.

Scam of the Year

The BBB phishing scam - Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people received emails imitating an official notice from BBB. The subject line says something like “Complaint Against Your Business.” The instructions tell the recipient to either click on a link or open an attachment to get the details. If the recipient does either, a malicious virus launches. The virus can steal banking information, passwords and other critical pieces of information needed for cyber-theft. BBB is working with security consultants and federal law enforcement to track down the source of these emails, and has already 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 a computer is networked with others, all machines on the network should be scanned.

For more information on these and other scams, go to BBB Scam Source (