7 of the Greatest Scams Ever

You may have heard the one about 51-year-old Maria Gabriella Perez, the owner of a Beverly Hills beauty salon, who was arrested by federal authorities this week for allegedly stealing credit card information from Jennifer Aniston, Anne Hathaway and Liv Tyler among others. Perez, it seems, racked up $280,000 in fraudulent charges in a year.

Several years ago my son and I were the victims of a scam perpetrated by a bad guy who lived in Arizona. In total, we lost about $15,000 in cash and collectibles, far less than the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by some of his other victims, who were located across the globe.

Needless to say I was furious and more than a little embarrassed and I wanted to get even. Of course, this guy didn’t use any of his real information. But, hey, I’m an investigative reporter, so I did a little (OK a lot) of investigative work and finally tracked him down. Ultimately I turned Phoenix authorities on to him. Actually, they were already looking for him, but I like to think I had a hand in putting him behind bars. He was ultimately arrested and is set for trial soon. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Anyway, all this got me to thinking about all the scams that people have fallen prey to over the years. So, for your reading pleasure, here are seven of my favorites, in no particular order. Oh, and it goes without saying, "Don't try any of these at home." [Why Old People Make Good Scam Targets]

Work at Home Scams

“Be part of one of America’s Fastest Growing Industries. 
Be the Boss!
Earn thousands of dollars a month from home!”

Ads like this are everywhere — on telephone poles, in your newspaper and e-mail and on your favorite websites. Although the jobs are different, the message is the same—you can earn a great living working from home, even in your spare time.

Some even promise a refund if the “job” doesn’t work out. If you’re like many people, you’re probably thinking, “Where do I sign up?” But what you really should do is run, not walk, as far away from these ads as you can get.

The reality is most of these jobs are scams. The con men or women advertising them may get you to pay for starter kits or certifications that are useless. And they might even charge your credit card without permission.

One of the most well-known work-at-home scams involves stuffing envelopes. The ads say that if you pay a “small fee” like $99, you’ll learn how to earn lots of money stuffing envelopes at home. But all you get for your money is a letter telling you to scam your friends and relatives the same way you were scammed by getting them to buy the same envelope stuffing “opportunity.” Sticking it to them is the only way you’ll ever see any return on your investment.

Overweight? Have I got a deal for you.

Well, maybe not me, but scammers who promise that they’ll help you lose weight if you pay them a small fee. They’ll try to sell you bogus weight loss products like a patch containing kelp you wear that will make you lose weight, or a pill that will not only help you lose weight, but will also reverse the aging process. If you bite on one of these scams, the only thing you’re going to lose is your hard-earned dough.

The Nigerian Scam

Unless you live in a cave or on the moon, you've probably heard about this one. Here’s how it works:

The scammer emails you claiming to be a Nigerian official, businessperson or the surviving spouse of a former government official. He or she offers to transfer millions of dollars into your bank account in exchange for a fee—in this case, not a small fee, either. If you respond to the initial offer, you might even receive “official looking” documents. Then the scammer asks you to provide a blank bank letterhead, your bank account numbers, and some money to cover transaction and transfer costs and attorney’s fees.

Of course, you’ll lose your money and you’ll never see a dime of those promised millions. [Online Phishing Scams Get Personal]

Salting the Gold Mine

This is an oldie but a goodie. In the olden days, dishonest mine owners would put a few gold nuggets in worthless mines to convince prospective buyers the mines contained a ton of gold and get them to buy their claims. As the story goes, some old-time scammers even used to fire shotguns loaded with gold dust into the sides of the mines.

900 Phone Number Scam

You get a telephone call or a notice in the mail notifying you that you’ve won a sweepstakes or a lottery. But to claim your prize you have to call a 1-900 toll number.

As you listen to the lengthy message you’re racking up significant charges that will go straight into the scammers’ pockets. These charges will then appear on your monthly phone bill and you’ll be on the hook for them. Oh, I forgot to mention. You really didn’t win the sweepstakes or the lottery.

This is a low-tech version of the recently discovered Trojan malware virus directed in smartphonesrunning Google’s Android operating system. Once installed on the phone, the Trojan begins sending text messages, or SMS messages, to premium rate numbers — numbers that charge a fee — without the owners’ knowledge or consent, taking money from users’ accounts and sending it to the cybercriminals.

Money Order Overpayment Scam

The scam begins when a con artist answers a classified ad or auction listing, offering to buy the item for sale and pay for it with a money order. Then he comes up with a reason for sending a money order for more than the purchase price for the item. The scammer then asks the seller to wire back the difference after the money order is deposited and “supposedly clears.”

Because the money order looks very real, the bank typically accepts it as legitimate. Unfortunately, the money order is fake and the seller is liable to the bank for the entire amount. He also loses the money he sent the scammer and the item he sold.

The Ponzi Scheme

One of the biggest swindlers in U.S. history, Charles Ponzi’s name is associated with the Ponzi “pyramid” scheme — you know, the one allegedly used by Wall Street’s Bernard Madoff to defraud unsuspecting investors out of $65 billion.

In the 1920s, Charles Ponzi tricked thousands of New England residents into investing in a postage stamp speculation scheme. At that time the annual interest rate for bank accounts was just 5 percent, but Ponzi promised investors that he could provide a 50 percent return in 45 days and a 100 percent profit in 90 days.

Initially, Ponzi bought a small number of international mail coupons to support his scheme, but then he used money from later investors to pay off his earlier investors. In his heyday, Ponzi made millons of dollars but he ended up broke and in prison.

After writing about all these scams, I guess it bears repeating: If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

Linda Rosencrance has written about crime and security for Boston-area newspapers. She has written about cybercrime and cybersecurity for Computerworld and TechNewsDaily. She is the author of four true crime books “Murder at Morses Pond," “An Act of Murder,” “Ripper" and "Bone Crusher."