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Top 10 Consumer Scams--You've Won $1 Million!

The Nigerian scam artists and the phony bank phishing scammers need to work harder if they want to improve their rank in the latest scam standings issued by Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell, who is doing the best job I've seen in years of lining up a gubernatorial run from a lesser statewide office, is developing an Eliot Spitzerish knack for media-friendly interpretations of his office's role. Now he's out with his Top 10 list of the scams most frequently reported to state authorities, and the big surprise is that federal grants scams are at the top. I've not been lucky enough to receive these invitations, which apparently start off with a phone call announcing that you've won a federal grant that you didn't even apply for. Maybe these scammers focus exclusively on old folks, or maybe they are inexplicably honoring the feds' Do Not Call list, but I've managed to escape this one even as my email inbox continues to fill with Nigerian scams and their various cousins and offspring.

Here's McDonnell's list:

1. Federal Grant Scams
2. Telemarketing
3. Foreign Lottery
4. Identity Theft
5. Sweepstakes
6. Advance Fee/Nigerian Letters
7. Medicare Scams
8. Phishing
9. Online Shopping
10. Home Improvement Fraud

Given all the hype around identity theft, it's a bit of a shocker that it isn't at the top of the hit parade. I don't see anything particularly new in this list, either, suggesting that the first wave of online scams is so wonderfully profitable that the world's best con artists don't see much call for innovation in their field.

Or perhaps it's just that Virginia isn't on the cutting edge of scammery. A similar list from British authorities is much heavier on lottery-related scams, and a U.S. government list has some more creative-sounding scams, such as the golden oldie check overpayment scam and one of my personal faves, the one in which "you've been 'pre-qualified' to get a low-interest loan or credit card."

But the best list I've found of current top scams includes the negative-option scam (in which supposedly legit businesses such as American Express offer you "free" magazines or products, but when you fall for it, you find that you've actually signed up to receive and be billed for that magazine in perpetuity, unless you take positive steps to unsubscribe.) And then there's the phony job scam, which is a variation on the good old advance fee scam that takes special advantage of people cruising and other employment sites.

Are you seeing anything new and different on the scam front?

By Marc Fisher |  February 14, 2007; 7:36 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Can we add Adelphia Cable to the list of scams?

Posted by: FredCo | February 14, 2007 9:13 AM

Who cares? Let's whine about snow and ice and school closings for the millionth time! It's a lot more interesting to everyone.

Posted by: Michael | February 14, 2007 10:23 AM

Why don't people just delete these spam emails unopened from their inbox? It's awfully easy to tell which ones are spam just from the names of the senders and the title in the subject line. Plus, I set my spam filter at the highest setting (the occasional odd item still makes it through to the inbox, of course) -- then check the filter once or twice a day just in case a piece of wanted email gets caught in there, too. Are that many Americans really so greedy and gullible that they fall for this stuff?

Posted by: catlady | February 14, 2007 10:45 AM

I agree--McDonnell's done a great job of issuing these comsumer alerts. He's done a great job so far, and I hope we see lots more of him.

Posted by: S of Potomac | February 14, 2007 11:17 AM

It's ridiculous how many people just open every single piece of e-mail they get. One person told me, "I might miss something from a friend!" Who gives a crap, really? If you're that dumb, you get what you get -- more spam, more phishing, more junk.

Posted by: Tanger | February 14, 2007 11:36 AM

if you're afraid of missing an email that's been forwarded 73201730217 times, and that you're receiving for the 10th time then maybe you deserve to get scammed. you're not going to be an instant millionaire simply by clicking a mouse and doing no work. as with all things, if it sounds too good to be true, then it is. just like my wish for others to have common sense...

Posted by: exactly | February 14, 2007 12:00 PM

Catlady, the "New Yorker" did a piece on the economics of spamming. A spammer's hit rate is generally microscopic, but spamming has virtually no marginal cost -- sending out 100 million e-mails is scarcely more expensive than sending out one -- so they only need one response out of 10 million or so to make a living at it.

This is why some very smart people have suggested an e-mail fee of a fraction of a penny per e-mail. Suppose the fee was a tenth of a cent; most days, most of us would face a charge of under two cents, but the 100 million message spammer just saw his costs increase bv $100,000.

Posted by: quaker | February 14, 2007 12:08 PM

if you're afraid of missing an email that's been forwarded 73201730217 times, and that you're receiving for the 10th time then maybe you deserve to get scammed. you're not going to be an instant millionaire simply by clicking a mouse and doing no work. as with all things, if it sounds too good to be true, then it is. just like my wish for others to have common sense...

Posted by: exactly | February 14, 2007 12:10 PM

You mean the letter from the lawyer for prince mbutu who says he wants to give me 4.8 miliun dollers is a scam? But... he addressed me as deer sir! His typos were so endearing, how could I not be inclined to believe him? Obviously that money is meant for me and not the starving people of that country. You people are just greedy and do not want me to get my untold riches that are rightfully mine because a bunch of rich guys died in a plane crash, or by some other means, and wanted to give their money to me. Mwahahahaha.

Posted by: Chris | February 14, 2007 12:11 PM

The FTC has a comprehensive list at

The Virginia one and others are nice for a quick read, but for real reference I'd go to the FTC site. There aren't just ten -- there are scores.

As for a gubernatorial run, our AG has a big negative going for him -- he's beholden to the religious right. Lots of us think they're dangerous fanatics.

And I'm not impressed with his legal background. He went to one of the lowest rated law schools in the country (in terms of % passing the bar) -- and it's a law school run by the religious right. I want someone in office who is smart and objective, whether they're conservative, liberal or moderate. His mediocre legal acumen showed during the debate on the marriage amendment.

In terms of legal qualifications, there are literally thousands of lawyers in Virginia more qualified to be AG.

Posted by: PM | February 14, 2007 2:19 PM

Yeah, go ahead and do your banking online.

Posted by: Not | February 14, 2007 8:16 PM

I answer the Nigerian/African "I need to transfer a large amount of money; can I use your bank account for a commission?" emails with "You're a bit late - it's been already done and everyone's wise; try getting a job if you need some money".

Then I block them out and report them as a spammer.

Posted by: CEEAF | February 14, 2007 10:14 PM

Web pages that insist I give them a email address really torque me off too.

Usually they get the standard reply:

Posted by: SoMD | February 15, 2007 10:49 AM

Those with elderly parents should alert them to a phone scams involving Medicare. The standard pitch is that Medicare is coming out with a new card that will have no monthly premiums or co-payments, but there is a one time fee (amounts vary from $299 - 379). The caller then asks for the beneficiary's bank account information to process this payment.

This is especially insidious. Years ago it was pretty clear just who worked for Medicare. But with all the purveyors of new Medicare managed care and prescription plans are allowed to identify themselves as "contracted with Medicare."

Rule of thumb, no one from Medicare or from one of these plans should cold call you and ask for your personal information.

Posted by: Paul | February 16, 2007 12:51 PM

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