The ink was no sooner dry on president Obama’s signature on the stimulus package — aka, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — than all sorts of bottom feeders began looking for ways to exploit the package to stimulate their own finances. Deceptive Web sites, advertisements, and e-mail campaigns have cropped up across the Web in recent weeks, luring consumers into scams by promising them federal grant money from the stimulus package, said the Federal Trade Commission.

But the promise of stimulus money in return for a fee or financial information is always a scam, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency. There’s more than one way to perpetuate a stimulus scam. Some scam artists ask you to send a small processing fee, supposedly to get a much larger check in return. That’s money you’ll never see again. Others skip the fee, and instead, ask for your bank account number so they can “deposit” your check. Then, they use the information to clean out your account or open new ones using your identifying information.

What Happens in the Scam?


Since many people are desperate for financial help, they will be likely willing to divulge personal information in an effort to get a bit of that stimulus money. The scammers will send out materials that request personal information, including name, address, social security number, and banking information. With just a few bits of your vital information, these con artists can clean out your bank account, open new lines of credit in your name and virtually destroy your present credit rating in a very short period of time. Often this can occur before you even know what happened to you. Also, because some of these scams involve a “service”, many companies will also require some payment of sorts for the help. If you give out your credit card number, you can be charged for way more than a fake service.

Some stimulus scams encourage you to click on links, open attached forms, or call phony toll-free numbers. But simply clicking the link or opening the document can install harmful software, like spyware, on your computer. The result could be your personal information ending up in the hands of an identity thief.

In another scheme, you can order a CD or access a special Web site that will show you how to get a $12,000 government grant — if you make a small credit-card payment. But the fine print shows that you are also signing up for recurring credit-card charges that can be tough to get out of. The BBB found that people who signed up for this advice were charged as much as $69.95 every month on their credit or debit cards. The BBB has already received hundreds of complaints about these Web sites.

If you get a message offering you money from the stimulus program in exchange for your personal information, ignore it, delete it, or throw it out. The IRS does not send emails like this asking for personal information, and rebate companies claiming to have stimulus payments for you should not be trusted, regardless of how plausible the script sounds or how official the forms look.

How to Protect Yourself


If you get an unexpected email from someone claiming to be from the IRS and asking you to call a number or email back personal information, forward it to phishing@irs.gov, then delete it without clicking on any links or opening any attachments. If you think you are the target of a scam, you also can file a complaint with the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. Be sure to check out your credit card statements carefully each month and make sure there are no fraudulent charges. If you find something that does not make sense, contact your credit card company immediately and report your findings.

When a stimulus plan does involve a check to you (it may not), you will not need to fill out a separate form in an email or give out personal information — like account numbers or your Social Security number — to someone who calls you out of the blue. Never consider yourself untouchable. Scammers will not discriminate and will be happy to take money from people of all financial status.

Sources:
Kiplinger.com
American Consumer News
Federal Trade Commission