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Scam Alert

Work-at-home opportunities are big business for scam artists. Each year over billions of dollars is lost to scams. You can protect yourself by learning how to evaluate opportunities, knowing what are the most common scams you will run into, and using consumer protection resources. This page provides general information on how to protect yourself. To learn about current scams and hoaxes, subscribe to WAHS Jobs and News

Evaluating Opportunities

Protect Yourself

Scams to Avoid

Consumer Protection

Evaluating "Opportunities"

You are reading an e-mail or magazine ad that promises to help you make good money working at home. Or your neighbor invites you to a "meeting" to learn about a new way to "leverage time and money". They all sound so tempting and convincing. So how do you know which deals may be legit and which aren’t? Here are a few rules of thumb to consider when tempted by work-at-home schemes:

1. If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Avoid any program that will "do the work for you" or gives grandiose income claims.

2. Avoid any company that doesn’t have a street address (not P.O. Box) and phone number.

3. Envelope stuffing and assembly work....stay away from it. I haven’t run into anyone yet who hasn’t lost money on these.

4. I tend to avoid work-at-home job ads in which the email address is not to the domain name of the site. For example, when you email Work-At-Home Success, your mail is sent to success@workathomesuccess. Some job announcements are sent to a commercial account such as AOL or Yahoo. Anybody with a legitimate job to offer over the internet will have an email address with their company's domain name... not a commercial account (unless of course it is AOL or Yahoo offering the job). The same goes for Website URLs. Any websites listed at free hosting sites such as Angelfire, Geocities, and Freeyellow, should be carefully investigated. Any company that can't afford its own website with domain name can't afford to hire you! 

5. NEVER SEND MONEY TO GET A JOB. Is isn't uncommon to invest money in a home business but if you are responding to a job announcement, don't send money. Legitimate employers never charge to hire you. The non-legitimate company will tell you to send money to cover the cost of  materials or to process your application. Don't believe it. You wouldn't pay for training or paperclips at your current job would you? These companies usually aren't offering jobs, just information on how to scam others or how to start a business.

6. Have you ever noticed that some ads are very appealing but, never indicate what exactly the program entails? Stay away from any company whose ad doesn’t come right out and tell what it is offering. How good can a program be if it relies on hype in stead of a good quality work-at-home program?

7. If you are looking for a home-based job from your classified ads, 800 numbers should raise a red flag. Most local companies don't use 800 numbers in local ads. If you decide to call, and it sounds like a "job" situation, get as much information as possible so you can research the company. And remember, never send money.

8. What about infomercial opportunities such as Carlton Sheets, Brad Richdale, or Jeff Paul? To be honest, they do provide legitimate information on building your own business BUT, most of the information they provide you can get for FREE or at least cheaper at the library or local book store. 

9. Network marketing opportunities abound. Over the past few years, MLM has begun to recover from the negative association with pyramid schemes. While the hierarchy is a pyramid in shape (come to think of it, all businesses are!), network marketing is a legitimate business opportunity IF the main purpose is to market products. You can feel safe in joining the companies that are well-known such as Amway, Mary Kay, Discovery Toys, Shaklee and others. Even so, it always pays to research any business opportunity. Be sure you understand the compensation plan and any refund policies. See below for information on how to investigate companies. 

10. Always "sleep-on-it". Many business opportunities can get you so excited about the possibilities that you end up writing a check without thinking. Always leave your checkbook and credit cards at home! Put the magazine ad away for a day or two. Turn off the t.v. You won’t miss out. The ads are run all the time. If you decide to pursue it, it will still be there.

11. Watch out for Home Business Associations and Home Business Seminars. They have been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission mostly for misrepresenting earning potentials to consumers. That's enough to keep me away. See number 7 if you feel tempted.

Protect Yourself

You have some ideas on how to weed out the scams from the legitimate work-at-home opportunities but there is more you can do to prevent being a victim of a scam and recoup your loss if you are scammed. 

First, consider the above information before doing anything. If you think you might have a viable opportunity, do the following:

  1. Contact the Better Business Bureau located in the area the company is located. Look in the phone book for the area code and call (area code)555-1212 for long distance information to get the local BBB phone number. Or visit the Better Business Bureau on-line. Remember though that just because a company isn't listed doesn't mean it's legitimate.
  2. Visit the Federal Trade Commission on-line for its consumer protection information on money-making schemes. You can also file complaints if you have been scammed.
  3. Contact the Attorney General’s Office in the state in which the company is located. 
  4. Get references, lots of them, and call them all. Be aware that some references may be bogus. Some scam organizations have people giving false references.
  5. See what you can find on the Internet. You can do searches and participate in message boards.
  6. NEVER PAY BY CHECK ONLINE! If the company only does checks online, that should be a tip off. (In fact, if any work-at-home opportunity only takes cash or check... think twice). Once you give your checking account information to someone else, you are vulnerable to having more funds withdrawn. The only recourse if that happens is to close the account. If this has happened to you, contact your bank and file a fraud report. Sometimes your bank will re-reimburse your money but not always.  
  7. Pay with credit card not a debit or check guarantee card. Credit card companies offer greater ease of getting your money back if you are a victim of fraud and can give you a charge-back if the company isn't co-operating. Further, you are usually liable for only $50 when your card is lost or stolen. That kind of safety may not be offered with a debit or check guarantee card.
  8. Any doubts? Don’t do it!

Common Scams to Avoid

Typing/Reading Scams

"Home Typists Needed," "Make Money Reading Books,"  etc.......You may have seen ads like this in your local paper. Perhaps you even responded, calling the 800 number hoping to hear about companies hiring home workers. If you did, you probably discovered these ads were somewhat misleading. While these ads aren't fraudulent, they do prey on unsuspecting work-at-home wannabes who are looking for a home-based job. What they get instead, is a sales pitch to buy an overpriced book (add a second book for a special price!) that will tell them how they can type at home, or make money reading books in a freelance arrangement. These books generally sell for $35 or more but, unfortunately, they don't contain any more information (and in some cases contain less information) than similar books found at the library or bookstore. And, the quality can be poor. The books I received had many typos and duplicate pages.

Chain Letters

Remember when a chain letter was a chain letter?  It told you to send money, recipes, or whatever to the person on the top of the list and add your name to the bottom. (Then they added a bad luck curse to get you to do it!) Today chain letters have gotten a little more clever...seemingly offering something for the money you send. Nevertheless, United States Post Office clearly states that chain letters that promise monetary gain, regardless of what else it offers, are illegal!

I receive chain letters at least once per week either by e-mail or snail mail. One calls itself a "MLM Non-repayable Cash Loan Program" (adding "that CAN'T FAIL). Another just says "it’s legal" because "reports" are exchanged for the money sent. More recently they have been referred to as "gifting" programs. I am sure there are many others, obvious and not so obvious. According to the United States Postal Inspection Service, a chain letter is a "get rich quick" scheme that promises lots of money by doing what the letter says which is usually send money to the top person on the list and add yours to the bottom. You send the letter to others (or sometimes the originator of the letter will do the sending for you) and eventually, your name will move to the top of the list and tons of money will arrive. Sometimes, the letter indicates that you will receive reports for the money, and you will send those reports on as you receive money from others. The Postal Inspection Service is clear when it says that chain letters, even those that offer some sort of "product" are illegal. "Selling a product doesn’t ensure legality. Letters that request money or other items of value, and promise a substantial return to the participants violate Title 18, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute." Further, whether the letter comes snail mail, e-mail or any other route, it is still illegal because the mail is used at some point, at least to send the money. (Note: many programs are now using online payments such as Paypal. While the US Mail is not used, I would still avoid this type of program.) The United States Postal Inspection Service warns to not be fooled by letters saying the United States Postal services declared it legal. Neither the Postal Service or the Postal Inspectors give prior approval to any chain letter. It also recommends that you turn any letter you receive that promises money for participation to your local postmaster or nearest Postal Inspector. Let them know you received the letter and suspect that it is illegal.

More important than legality, chain letters don’t work. Many who participate don’t send money, they just add their name. Others list numerous names and addresses, but all money goes to the one person. A money chain letter is scam any way you look at it. Don’t be taken in.

United States Postal Inspector: Consumer Fraud

Internet Fraud

From the Federal Trade Commission: On June 25, 1998, the Federal Trade Commission released information regarding its growing concern over Internet fraud. The FTC told a House Committee that Internet business could increase from $2.6 billion in 1996 to $220 billion by 2001. The FTC's goal is to ensure that consumers feel safe from Internet fraud.

Regarding consumer education, the FTC maintains a website at and with cooperation with other agencies has created a second site at to provide information on consumer issues.

The FTC offers a great deal of information to protect consumers. Still, it is up to the consumer to protect him/herself by utilizing the information. If you have or think you have been scammed, offers information on how to report your experience not just to them but, to other consumer protection agencies as well.

E-Mail Get Rich-Schemes

Are you disappointed when you check your e-mail only to discover scrolling pages of "get rich quick" schemes? Perhaps, in your desire to work at home, you have actually read or even responded to one of these ads. I’ll admit I did. The Better Business Bureau warns consumers to exercise the same cautions you would for mail and phone solicitations. It recommends the following to protect yourself:

  • Get a complete list of all current and future charges and obligations you may incur.
  • Ask for a description of any help, training, or financial assistance the company will provide.
  • Get references; ask for the names and addresses of others who have purchased business opportunities for the company.
  • Get a written description of the conditions under which the contract may be terminated or modified by either party.

I will also ad:

  • Avoid companies that you can’t e-mail directly (hit reply).
  • Avoid companies that don’t have a phone or street address.

Below are the 12 scams that the FTC has identified as being the are most likely to arrive in consumers’ e-mail boxes.

1. Business opportunities

These business opportunities make it sound easy to start a business that will bring lots of income without much work or cash outlay. The e-mail letters boast of fantastic earning claims of $100 a day, $1,000 a day, or more, and further claim that the business doesn’t involve selling, meetings, or personal contact with others, or that someone else will do all the work. Many business opportunity solicitations claim to offer a way to make money in an Internet-related business. There usually is no specific information on what is involved. Instead the message provides a telephone number to call for more information. In many cases, you’ll be told to leave your name and telephone number so that a salesperson can call you back with the sales pitch. The scam may vary from an elaborate pyramid scam to stuffing envelopes and more.

2. Bulk e-mail

Bulk e-mail ads offer to sell you lists of e-mail addresses to which you can send your own bulk ads. Some offer software that automates the sending of e-mail messages to thousands or millions of recipients. Others offer the service of sending bulk e-mail solicitations on your behalf. Some of these offers say, or imply, that you can make a lot of money using this marketing method.

The problem with these programs is that the spamming involved violates most ISP policies. 

3. Chain letters

This is an internet version of the traditional chain letter. You’re asked to send a small amount of money to each of four or five names on a list, replace one of the names on the list with your own, and then forward the revised message via bulk e-mail. The letter may claim that the scheme is legal or that it’s been reviewed by a lawyer, or it may refer to sections of U.S. law that legitimize the scheme. Don’t believe it.

As mentioned before, chain letters involving money are illegal and almost everyone who participates lose their money. The fact that a "product"  may be changing hands in the transaction does not change the legality of these schemes. Its the promise of big bucks in exchange for adding your name to the list and sending money to others above you that makes it illegal.

4. Work-at-home schemes

This includes all the traditional work-at-home schemes such as envelope stuffing and assembly work. The difference is the information is delivered to you via email. It doesn't matter how the information gets to you, these schemes are always scams. 

5. Health and diet scams

Information on miracle pills that will help you lose weight effortlessly or cures for hair loss and impotence are filling e-mail boxes. But, the gimmicks don't work no matter what the testimonials or experts say. 

6. Effortless income

These are some of the most enticing solicitations even though you don't know what is involved by the time you get to the end of the ad. They promise thousands of dollars per day, trips to exotic places, and great gimmicks to make it happen for you. Regardless of the 'system', its not likely to work. If it did, wouldn't every one be doing it? No matter what ads tell you, it takes time and effort to make money.

7. Free goods

Buying clubs are big business but you need to be careful that it is a true club and not a pyramid. The scam is that you receive an email to join (for a fee) a buying club and you will get free products. The trick is you need to recruit others to join too. In this scheme you are paying for the opportunity to profit in goods for recruiting people. In reality, most the money goes to the promoters and little to nothing goes to the participants. Remember, if the focus is on making a profit (money or otherwise) instead of buying or selling goods, its a pyramid.

8. Investment opportunities

Some of these come in the form of promoting offshore bank accounts. Others aren't as clear but report large rates of return. For the most part, these are Ponzi schemes in which early investors are paid with money received from later investors. It seems to work until there is no influx of money leaving the newest investors without any return. Usually the promoters close shop and skip town before the scheme falls apart only to re-open under another name and a different variation of the same scam. 

9. Cable descrambler kits

For a small sum of money, you can buy a kit to assemble a cable descrambler that supposedly allows you to receive cable television transmissions without paying any subscription fee.

Usually the device won't work but even if it did, to use it would be illegal.

10. Guaranteed loans or credit, on easy terms

Some e-mail messages offer home-equity loans that don’t require equity in your home. They also offer guaranteed, unsecured credit cards, regardless of your credit history. Usually, these are said to be offered by offshore banks. Sometimes they are combined with pyramid schemes, which offer you an opportunity to make money by attracting new participants to the scheme.

Most people who apply (and pay money) won't be approved for these loans. And as mentioned earlier, Ponzi schemes eventually fall apart.

11. Credit repair

Credit repair scams offer to erase accurate negative information from your credit file so you can qualify for a credit card, auto loan, home mortgage, or a job.

The truth is, the only one who can clean up your credit is you. It takes time and effort. These scammers often suggest you take illegal action such as lying on credit applications or falsifying documents. If you need help with your debt, try Consumer Credit Counseling or other legitimate debt counseling services that don't promise credit repair but will provide assistance in making a plan for debt reduction. If you are ever asked to lie or knowingly change information on your documents, don't do it.

12. Vacation prize promotions

Electronic certificates congratulating you on "winning" a low price vacation are among the scams arriving in your e-mail. In this scam, you will get substandard accommodations which can be upgraded for a fee. Also, you may have to pay more if you can't travel within the given time frame.

The Federal Trade Commission has free publications about recognizing fraudulent unsolicited commercial e-mail and other Internet-related subjects. Contact the FTC at 202-FTC-HELP (382-4357), or write: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580.

Home-based Business Seminars

Have you seen the infomercial for the FREE home business seminars? Have you been tempted to go? Have you gone? Well, according to the Federal Trade Commission, several companies that offered free seminars and charged $495 for home business "starter kits" were charged with misrepresenting earnings and success rates. According to the FTC, at the free home based business seminars, the defendants induced consumers to purchase their home based business starter kits by making claims that each of the business ventures it was selling was proven money-maker. In fact, few people who purchased these kits made substantial money. Further, the FTC reports that the claims made in testimonials do not represent expected results from using the kits. 

While filing of a complaint doesn’t necessarily mean the law has been violated, the commission makes such a complaint when it has "reason to believe" that the law has been violated. This situations reminds those of us who have looked or are looking for an easy work-at-home situation to always investigate the companies and products before spending any money.

For more information regarding this or other complaints by the FTC visit their website at

Network Marketing

One of the biggest concerns people have regarding network marketing is its legality. The hierarchical structure and past government investigation into Amway Corporation are the leading causes of skeptical thinking regarding network marketing. The fact is, network marketing is legal if done legally! The physical structure has nothing to do with determining the legality of network marketing. And Amway's approval by the government has led it to become the standard by which other companies are often measured.

In his book How To Build A Multi-level Money Machine, Randy Gage offers a detailed explanation of the network marketing opportunity versus the illegal pyramid scheme. In essence, a legitimate network company compensates based on the volume of product moved through a person' s organization. Usually, the person must have a certain amount of product they sell themselves but, they are also paid based on the amount of product sold by others they recruit and train. Illegal pyramid schemes compensate (in theory) for recruiting others into the pyramid. What is the difference? Legitimate network companies don't compensate for the act of getting a recruit. They compensate for a percentage of how much a recruit sells. In even simpler terms, network marketing is about the distribution of products, illegal pyramid schemes are about recruiting people.

Because network marketing resembles a pyramid in its structure, many think it is illegal. The fact is most organizations from the federal government to local non-profits resemble a pyramid in structure. An example would be a company with a president, several vice-presidents, more supervisors, more managers and even more workers. So the physical structure is not what makes a pyramid scheme illegal. Telling people to pay an amount to join an organization and they will be compensated merely for getting others to pay to join is illegal. In its simplest form, it is a chain letter. More complex forms have cost people thousands of dollars in more elaborate ponzi schemes.

So, how do you know which company is ok? Randy Gage outlines factors to consider when researching a network marketing company.

  1. The focus of the company should be distribution of products to "ultimate" users. An ultimate use is essentially customers and not thousands of dollars of inventory in one person's garage.

  2. Commissions are paid on product distribution (sales), not for the act of recruiting. "If you are paid simply for recruiting, or for selling training, distributor kits or training materials- then you're in a pyramid."

  3. States with network marketing laws require companies to repurchase inventory returned by distributors. Sometimes there are different policies about how this is done but, the purpose is to prevent a distributor from having a garage full of products he can't afford with little ability to sell it. You can always find someone somewhere who tried network marketing 20 years ago only to end up with a 20 year supply of soap. Legitimate network marketing companies tend to discourage buying too much inventory.

Mr. Gage reports that companies in compliance with the above criteria are in line with the law and the spirit in which the law was intended.

Incidentally, Mr. Gage also cautions people against "Buyer's Clubs" which stress signing people up to buy wholesale products. The Federal Trade Commission considers these clubs pyramids because of the commission structure and no option for retailing. Discount buying clubs (Cosco, Sam's Club, Price Club, etc) are legal but, would be illegal if it paid members to recruit others into the club.

While there are many other factors to consider when choosing a network marketing company, the first should be whether or not it is legal. Hopefully, the above information will help readers in making that determination. As always, contact the Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission, get references and research any company you are considering.

Pyramid Schemes

What's the difference between a pyramid scam and network marketing? A product. Network marketing involves the distribution of a product. The product is sold by a representative and by any people the representative has sponsored and trained. Because the hierarchy of these groups looks like a pyramid, many erroneously believe they are illegal. The true illegal pyramid scam (also known as Ponzi), involves no product. Basically, you give $2000 to some one who then helps you recruit people to give you $2000. The truth of the scam may be hidden in words such as "investment" or "buying in at a higher level". 

Medical Billing

Have you been tempted by advertisements for a home-based business that can help you pull in $50,000 or more a year doing medical billing? Before you part with your money, consider this: The Federal Trade Commission has brought charges against several companies for misrepresenting the earnings potential of medical billing centers and failing to provide certain key investment information that the law requires.

Taking certain precautions can help you minimize your risk of losing money to a medical billing business opportunity. Here's what the FTC recommends:

  • Check out the company with the Attorney General, a consumer protection agency, and the Better Business Bureau where you live and where the business is headquartered. These organizations can tell you if there are any unresolved complaints about the company. While complaints may alert you to problems, the absence of complaints does not necessarily mean the company is legitimate. Unscrupulous companies may settle complaints, change their names, or move to avoid detection.
  • Call the Secretary of State where the company is headquartered to determine how long it has been in business.
  • Get all earnings claims in writing. Insist that the promoter give you written substantiation. Be sure it includes the number and percent of others who have earned at least as much as the promoter claims. If the promoter hesitates or refuses, walk away from the deal. Don’t believe what was said about sales, profits or income.
  • Be skeptical of past success stories. Don’t rely solely on the names given to you by the promoter. Fraudulent companies sometimes hire "references" to speak to potential investors about earnings claims. Ask the promoter to give you the names of all or many previous purchasers so that you can pick and choose who to call. When speaking to references, ask them for the names of their clients and details of their operations. If the promoter or the references hesitate or refuse, walk away from the deal.
  • Consult an attorney, accountant, or other business advisor before you sign any agreement or make any payments upfront. 

If you think you’ve been defrauded in a medical billing business opportunity, contact the company and ask for your money back. Let the company know you plan to notify law enforcement and other officials about your experience. Keep a record of your conversations and correspondence. If you send documents to the company, make sure you send copies, not originals. Send correspondence by certified mail—and request a return receipt—to document what the company received.

Consumer Protection Resources

If you have experienced fraud in any of the above schemes and are unable to get your money back, contact the following companies for help. You may not get your money back, but you can fight to prevent the company from continuing to scam others.

  • The State Attorney General’s office or the Secretary of State where you live and where the company is headquartered. The staff can tell you if you are protected by any state laws that regulate business opportunities.
  • The Federal Trade Commission. Although the FTC cannot resolve individual disputes, the information you provide may indicate a pattern of possible law violations requiring action by the Commission. Write to Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580, or call 202-326-2222, TDD: 202-326-2502.
  • The National Fraud Information Center (NFIC) at 1-800-876-7060, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. EST, Monday - Friday. 
  • Your local consumer protection office.
  • Your local Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the BBB where the company is located.
  • Your local Postmaster. The U.S. Postal Service investigates fraudulent mail practices.