The Internet ad for the medical billing job seemed almost tailor-made for Pamela Brown: She could earn money by working at home at night, leaving her more hours during the day to spend with her kids.
If only the Livermore, Calif., mom knew then what she knows now: The job was bogus, the company was a fraud and the only person ever billed was Brown -- $369 for instructional software that never arrived.
By the time she figured out the scam, it was too late to even get a refund on her credit card purchase.
"I felt a little stupid," said Brown, 33, a day-care provider. "If I can keep one person from doing this it will be worth my time."
Scam artists who once limited their phony operations to cheesy flyers on telephone poles and ads in free newspapers have found a friend in the Internet, a San Francisco ExaminerKTVU-TV investigation shows, which makes it possible to solicit employees through private e-mails or cyberspace ads.
The Internet is a different medium," says Jeffrey Klurfeld, director of the Western region of the Federal Trade Commission in San Francisco. "The more people have access to more media, the more they have access to being victimized. Telemarketing and Internet fraud are opportunistic."
Klurfeld said the FTC has dozens of files on bogus telemarketing schemes, although not all of them on the Internet.
But he says the opportunists go after a certain market, often trying to lure the elderly and disabled who may not get out much and who may need extra cash, or by appealing to women at home who may have a few hours to spend earning money.
Carlos Molina, 65, got an e-mail about a year ago and thought he could make good money stuffing envelopes on his own time. All the San Francisco man needed to do was send in $45 for materials.
"It was extra money so I said, 'Why not?"'
Of course, the materials from Phoenix never arrived.
"I wrote them several times and never got an answer," said Molina, a supervisor at a security company.
He contacted the FTC and other agencies, just like Brown did.
"It wasn't much," he said of his $45. "But the reason I went after them was for all the people who might make the same mistake."
Although the scam can take various forms -- from promising big bucks for stocking vending machines to making crafts at home -- Klurfeld said the latest fraud is the promise of medical billing jobs.
The U.S. Postal Service estimates that there are about 140,000 telemarketers in the country, about 10 percent of them illegal.
Klurfeld said there are ways that consumers can protect themselves. He advises consumers to check out companies with the state attorney general's office, the state consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau in a consumer's area.
Among other suggestions:
-- Don't rely on a couple of names for references given by the company. Ask for several names and make sure they let you pick whom to call.
-- Consult an attorney, accountant or other business adviser before signing any agreement. Do not give your credit card number to anyone.
-- And, of course, have a healthy skepticism to begin with.
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