The withering economy prompts this revision of an old saying: When economic times get tough, the con artists get going.
And these are tough economic times, with increasing unemployment, high gas prices, volatile financial markets, and a terrible housing crisis in many parts of the country.
Some criminals are dusting off their old scams to take advantage of these trying times. An example of an old scam that heartless fraudsters might revitalize is the infamous chain letter.
You probably have received these dozens of times, perhaps in the mail, or these days, through e-mail. Chain letters have been a swindle for many long years. Most generally are set up in the same way.
First, they promise a large cash return on a very small investment. The letters or e-mails usually contain a list of names and addresses, with instructions that you send a few dollars to the person at the top of the list, then remove that name from the list and add your own name to the bottom of the list.
Next, they may tell you to mail or e-mail copies to a certain number of people, along with the directions about how they should continue the chain letter.
The chain letter attempts to hook you with this alluring premise: By the time your name gets to the top of the list, so many people will be involved that you will be deluged with cash. For example, a common chain letter promises earnings of $50,000 or more within 90 days.
There’s at least one problem with that assurance: Chain letters are illegal if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return. Oops!
Chain letters even have gone high-tech, far beyond the initial step of e-mail. They are being disseminated over the Internet, or they may require the copying and mailing of computer disks,
Quick Security Tip: Regardless of what technology is used to advance the scheme, if the mail is used at any step along the way, it is still illegal, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Here are some chain letter awareness tips from the Federal Trade Commission: Chain letters that involve money or valuable items and promise big returns are illegal. If you start one or send one on, you are breaking the law. Chances are you will receive little or no money back on your “investment.” Some chain letters try to win your confidence by claiming they are legal, and even that they are endorsed by the government. Nothing is further from the truth. If you have been a target of a chain email scam, contact your Internet Service Provider and forward the email to the FTC.
In addition, the Postal Inspection Service offers the following advice: Chain letters don’t work, because the promise that all participants will be winners is mathematically impossible. Do not be fooled if the chain letter is used to sell inexpensive reports on credit, mail order sales, mailing lists, or other topics. The primary purpose is to take your money, not to sell information.
Quick Security Tip: “Selling” a product does not ensure legality of a chain letter.
Turn over any chain letter you receive that asks for money or other items of value to your local postmaster. Write on the mailing envelope of the letter, “I have received this in the mail and believe it may be illegal.”
For more information about chain letters, contact the FTC at www.ftc.gov and the Postal Inspection Service at www.usps.com.
My Final Thoughts: With today’s uncertain and tough economic conditions, it is highly likely that you will receive more get-rich-quick cons than ever, including illegal chain letters.
Don’t get duped: Always check any offers carefully before you invest your hard-earned dollars.
Bruce Mandelblit (www.Mandelblit.com) is a nationally known security and safety journalist, as well as a recently retired, highly decorated reserve law enforcement officer. His e-mail address is [email protected]
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