Who’s responsible for the scam epidemic?

For the 12th year in a row, ID theft is the number-one complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency announced recently. It’s followed by the usual shenanigans, including debt collection schemes, bogus sweepstakes, and bank fraud.

But the real news is the reaction to the list, which is … well, nothing.

Apart from a few polite pick-ups by the mainstream media that noted the ID theft epidemic, the news was roundly ignored in favor of the latest primary election drama or iPad product announcement.

Travel wasn’t exempt. Not a single major travel news outlet — notaone — picked up the news, even though 32,736 complaints in the amorphous “Travel, Vacations and Timeshare Plans” were recorded.

The message to consumers couldn’t have been any clearer. Same old scams, same old advice — watch out for identity thieves, don’t wire money to strangers, careful when you shop online.


Hang on. Speaking on behalf of the last five remaining consumer advocates, would you mind spending just another minute with the FTC chart?

It’s more than a brag-list of how many phone calls and letters this federal agency fielded from ripped-off customers. It can also be a roadmap for a scam-free 2012.

You have to look beyond the crimes to see what’s really happening. It’s more disturbing than the million-plus complaints against unscrupulous businesses, or even for that matter, the many cases the government refused to investigate.

For example, ID theft is not about your social security number, credit card information and password being snatched by an invisible perpetrator. It is the unfortunate confluence of careless consumers and clever criminals.

Impostor scams, another popular complaint category, isn’t a one-time ruse that only the naïve fall for. It’s about the career con artists using tried-and-true strategies for swindling good people out of their hard-earned cash, again and again.

And the thing is – and I say this as both a victim and a student of scams – there’s no quick fix.

The process of making sure you don’t leave your data lying around carelessly starts when you spend the first dollar of your allowance and develops as you become a gainfully-employed, taxpaying citizen, as I reveal in my book.

Too bad we failed to learn those basic lessons.

What is being taught, exactly? Thanks to an incessant barrage of ads and messages that are controlled by a thousand unseen reputation management operatives, we’re programmed to become unquestioning consumers, to obediently and uncritically buy, buy, buy.

One of the byproducts of this collective brainwash is that we’ll fall for anything, including the obvious scams. Our capacity to research, evaluate and execute a sound purchase has been short-circuited. Our development as responsible consumers is stunted.

The fact that the watchdogs are often unresponsive doesn’t help. An FTC report quietly released yesterday suggests it’s sometimes hard to reach: 36 percent of people surveyed said they found it either “somewhat or very difficult” and and 13 percent reported that it was “very difficult” to contact an agency representative.

But back to us. We’re a little bit like toddlers at the mall, instinctively reaching for everything the adults leave at eye-level. When something goes wrong, we also react like babies, whining and threatening until we get our way, instead of applying proven problem-solving techniques that should be part of everyone’s basic education.

The result: We can’t help but be victims. To repeat: ID theft has led the FTC list for 12 years in a row – 12 years! You’d think we would have learned to avoid it by now, don’t you?

What the list tells me, and what it should tell you, is that our problems go far beyond complaints filed with the feds. Until we recognize that we’re being influence by powerful forces with a vested interest in keeping us ignorant, uncritical and yes, gullible, we won’t be able to start the long journey toward enlightenment.

We are a nation of the scammed. But we don’t have to stay that way, do we?

(Photo: Beta-J/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_JVORRILRMJBBK4PXEOPGG7HEIQ David D

    Turn off the 24/7 celebrity news and the leftist balderdash that passes for news and there is SO much out there to learn.

  • emanon256

    It’s sort of a chicken and egg question.  Are the businesses unscrupulous because of the ignorant consumers? Or would they just come up with new ways to scam savvy customers making them appear ignorant?
    I do think it’s sad that people making a living by cheating and scamming, and even worse seemly reputable companies run their business that way. I always hear people say, “If they put the same amount of effort into their scams as they do into making an honest living, they would be rich.”  But if every business and person were honest, I can’t help but feel someone would still cheat to try to get ahead of the others.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Tough call. I’ve told the story of the “vetted” Conde Nast “Belize Expert” who felt was going to scam me, but here’s another one…

    I received a call one day from someone claiming to from one of my credit card companies saying they were trying to get in touch with me and that my card will be turned off if I didn’t contact them immediately. These rascals had been calling every hour on the hour and after googling the number and seeing that they were indeed a scam, I decided to have some fun with them.

    So, with 20 minutes to kill, when they called again, I messed with them. I pressed “1” to speak to a live person as the recording instructed me to do. I was then “phished” for personal information. As I became more and more obtuse, the sketchy man on the other end became more beligerent with me. 

    Some of my games included; I told them I forgot my name because I had been hit over the head by a frying pan by a coyote but that some people call me “Seymour Butts.” I didn’t have a credit card because the Credit Card God took them all away for Lent. I didn’t have a birthday because I was hatched, not born….” When asked if I was male or female, I said, “Neither, but you’re welcome to come check my pants.” That really got him angry. LOL.

    I mean, I went for totally ridiculous answers and since his English was no good, I think he was actually recording some of these answers in a computer. 

    When the scammer on the other end accused me of “wasting his time,” I said, “Well, at least I tied you up for a few minutes so you couldn’t scam a senior.” He called me something in another language, but it was worth the 20 minutes because they never called again.

    The number they were using is: 971-220-1771. It comes up in caller ID as “Phone.” Clever.

  • Chris_In_NC

    It’s not that simple. Scams have been around since the dawn of mankind. Technology has made scams easier to pull off at virtually no cost to the scammer. Do you think the Nigerian e-mail scam would be so effective 30 years ago given the cost of sending out each individual snail mail?

  • jeanneinVT

    That was brilliant!

  • emanon256

    I love it!

  • MarkKelling

    Scammers will always be with us because there is always someone looking for the deal that is too good to be true.  After all, who doesn’t want a week long vacation in some exotic location for less than $100 a day with everything included? 

  • BillCCC

    You missed a few selections plus an ‘All of the above’. You should have added the actual identity thieves. I would not necessary say that consumers are ignorant more along the lines of either uninformed or greedy. Quite a few people get ripped off when they attempt to get something for nothing or practically nothing. Common sense goes a long way.

  • NakinaAce

    There is no preventative to stupidity and if there was surely it would not come from the government.

  • Bill Norris

    There’s still no “Free Lunch”. You don’t win lotteries that you don’t enter, you don’t get a windfall from dead relatives that you never heard of, your Friends and Grandchildren don’t call you for money when they’re stranded without their passport, you can’t make $1000 per week by stuffing envelopes or stringing beads at home, etc.
    You hardly ever get something for nothing. Gullibility plays a part, and unfortunately, so does senility (don’t yell at me; I’m 75 years old). I wish that I knew the answer. I don’t, but neither does anyone else. An acquaintance of mine, a Graduate Engineer, was scammed for $450,000 a few years ago by a Nigerian “Get Rich Quick” scam, even though local Police told him, early in the game, that he was dealing with scammers. What does that tell us about gullibility and greed?

  • Bill Norris

    To be fair, there’s enough balderdash on both sides to go around. Additionally, this isn’t the place for political discourse.

  • Rose Arnold

    …and Fox

  • SoBeSparky


  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    My mom used to try a similar ruse, although one that didn’t use up quite as much time.  Any time either a telemarketer or suspected scam artist called the house, she would yell some gibberish in her native tongue for 30 seconds or so.  It worked, until call centers started moving to India, and the person on the other end actually knew what she was saying…

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    I do this, too, Raven – I’ve come up with some whoppers.  When my mom was still alive, whenever a telemarketer would call she’d keep them on the line playing the “lonely senior citizen” card until they would hang up on her.  I sat and listened to her one day and she had me cracking up!

  • WaldoLydecker

     Interestingly, a recent study showed that
    Fox News viewers less informed than those who don’t watch news at all.


  • Rose Arnold

     Agreed.  Just hard not to respond to someone who inserts it into the discussion.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The answer to the poll is “both.” Scammers couldn’t exist without the gullible and the gullible are like a magnet for scams. The Internet has given scammers new tools and opportunities than before, but the cons they pull are timeless. 

    Some scammers prey on the helpless and infirm–those are far the worst, imo–while others use people’s greed against them. Chris just had a letter from somebody claiming to have been ripped off by a rental site…turned out they’d intentionally circumvented the legitimate renters to get a better deal from the supposed owner of the property. There’s no way of protecting people like that; you just have to let the fools be parted from their money.

  • Meebo

    If you do your due diligence and you aren’t greedy you don’t get scammed.  The vast majority of scam victims are simply stupid or lazy.

  • Extramail

    But the federal governments just added another federal bureaurqy – the consumer protection agency or whatever the heck they decided to call it. Just oanother excuse to add more federal employees is all I can figure. B

  • dsliesse

    Of course both parties are responsible — but the question asks who is *most* responsible.  I voted for the companies (assuming this category includes the actual scammers, and isn’t restricted to businesses with inadequate protections in place).  Yes, the victims perpetuate the market, but the market has to be created in the first place.

    I liken this to someone whose belongings are stolen because he left the front door unlocked.  While leaving it unlocked makes it easier for the thief (note: not a burglar or a robber, which have specific meanings), it’s still the thief that committed the overt act.

  • Linda Jordan

    I didn’t vote on this one because it’s 50/50!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_OEPJGQPIEB75YYDE5CJY6R3VFE Carver Clark Farrow II

    Unfortunately that’s not true.  The common scams perhaps,  but there are many other ways to get scammed, including, the fake ATM machine, the unscrupulous waiter, the fake spyware cleaning software, etc.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Trufax, Carver.
    I’m wondering when the US will start using the little porta-scanners I’ve seen on the West Coast of Canada. It’s really neat–the card never leaves your hand. You scan the card, add the tip, and the server never once touches it.

    (I was skimmed a few years ago in a bar in NYC. It was not cool…)

  • maudr

    To prevent identy theft and not pay the companies who advertise for a monthly fee get in touch with the 3 credit bureaus and get a CREDIT FREEZE put on. 

  • maudr

    Loved your post, thanks for that.

  • SallyLu

    I work for an investment firm and many years ago, a client of ours, who was a doctor (so presumably smart), got wrapped up in one of those deceased relative scams.  We warned him that this was a big scamming business, but he just didn’t want to believe it.  He even traveled overseas to the bank where the money was supposedly being held, where they let him see and touch the money.  I think it was about $10 million, but I don’t remember for sure.  He said to me that even if it was a scam, at least he got to touch that amount of money.  They kept asking him to send additional amounts – small at first, but it worked up to about $30,000 at a time.  We would never let him send the money from his account at our branch.  We told him if he wanted to send it, he’d have to withdraw the funds and send them another way.  I left that company without ever finding out how the whole thing ended up, but I’m betting he didn’t end up with the $10 million and his savings was significantly smaller!

  • Sadie_Cee

    We have them in Central Canada too.  Thought they were standard issue in all restaurants in North America.

  • Sadie_Cee

    An older relative once gave me some unsolicited investment advice.  She told me to deposit as much money as I could in an overseas bank which at the time was paying 45% interest.  I was appalled and tried to explain to her that this was a scam, a Ponzi scheme, as no bank could sustain that level of interest.  She laughed at me.  Turns out I was right.  Thousands of people lost their money.  The govt. of the country is trying to find the money and I have been told the case against the perp will not go forward until the money is found.  Fat chance!

  • MarkKelling

    Not in the US.  The banks here still don’t want to issue the chip cards.  They claim the cards cost too much.

  • Rose Arnold

     I think that at least some of those who voted for the ignorant customer as responsible for the scam epidemic did so because they:  (1) feel undeservingly superior about their ability to spot any scam  (2) assume, incorrectly, that everyone who is scammed is greedy and/or ignorant and thus get what they deserve (3) grossly underestimate the sophistication of many scams, and finally (4) underestimate how lucky they’ve been.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I used a regular magnetic strip US issued card in the porta-scanner-thing.


  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NDCHBRVZN3OJPH6UDCZH2KHRBA James G

    Maybe we should add Chris Elliot as one of the people pushing scams. Recently read where he recomended Boingo wifi service.
    Before you sign up, google it and read the reviews.

  • CAEmigirant

    Yes, there have been dishonest people around for eternity. I know I have to protect myself. What has changed is that the marketing people at every(!) legitimate company with which I deal have come up with every way to “nickel and dime” me to death. No more strategy, just milk nickels. I have to check every bill every month and question so many charges. No, I didn’t sign up for the special cable television package and you have no right to bill me for the added channels after the special expired, since I made sure at the beginning that I wasn’t getting any invisible specials. Now, magazines have begun sending “we’ll just charge your credit card and renew your subscription automatically to save you being inundated with our renewal mailings, unless you opt out and call us.” No, if you use the automated system because your newspaper was not delivered, you will not get an automatic credit, since the system believes a replacement copy has been delivered even though they have no mechanism for doing so(largest newspaper in the US). A bank has changed their free checking requirement four times in the last year and dinged me when they unilaterally unhooked my checking account from the savings account and charged a $25 fee for transferring money from one account to another from an ATM. No, when I changed my telephone service, I specifically asked about international calls’ rates and now you’re charging me $1/minute. This list goes on. And if the airline flight travel code three levels down in the European airline’s web site is “x”, you only get 1/2 mileage credit. No, a retail ad about discounts does not imply that the product was EVER sold for the normal price. I would say that the five hotel loyalty programs to which I belong have email discount campaigns are bogus for multiple reasons. Every one this month was not a good deal or unavailable there or then or, even though I responded in minutes, had hit its quota? Or we have to opt-out of a charge at checkout when we did not use the security box?

    These are reputable companies with no strategy and marketing departments that fundamentally do not respect the time or effort of their customers. And, it is clear these companies do not read customer on-line reviews or blogs.

  • Meredith Putvin

    My brother got hit with a similar number. He heard the message and hung up on them. Then when he was able to talk to me, I was able to determine the exchange was a Cellphone or a number in India. Confirmed it by attempting to dial back and was not able to get through. Bet I could if I dialed internationally… But still, My brother comes to me when he runs into these situations.

  • Meebo

    “Who’s responsible for the scam epidemic?”

    Stupid, lazy, greedy people.

  • http://www.timesharescam.com/ Vianney Carrillo

    See, the thing is, most people who are falling for timeshare scams are elderly/seniors who can’t run a computer or are too darned stubborn to, to be able to research, and on top of it, desperation puts you not in your right mind. Not to mention, one of the latest scammers to try my parents have an A- BBB rating, so they’re getting pretty good at trying to show they’re legit. Otherwise, I’m not really sure why my parents fell for it. my mom is very frugal and good with money.