Online predators have hit on social media site Twitter as the latest tool to lure victims into get-rich-quick and work-at-home schemes, according to the Better Business Bureau.
After tracking years of scams involving e-mail and Google, the bureau is seeing a surge in the number of companies claiming to help people turn Twitter into a virtual ATM with little effort and no risk, said spokeswoman Alison Southwick.
"Twitter is the cool thing, the bright, shiny object," she said Monday. "It's unbelievable how widespread this is. And with so many people vulnerable and looking for jobs, a scheme like this is going to have people falling for it when they can least afford to."
The messaging site allows participants to post, or "tweet," short updates that subscribers, or "followers," can read.
Recent schemes involve companies promising to pay Twitter users hundreds of dollars a day to tweet after they sign up for a free training kit, which the bureau said ends up sucking away a hefty monthly payment.
The bureau said some companies have a presence on Twitter itself, but all of them use e-mail and websites to attract customers.
Twitter Inc. did not respond to requests for comment.
The bureau, based in Washington, warns job seekers to be wary of claims that they can earn substantial paychecks simply by tweeting from home. Websites asking for money upfront for a tweeting "position" should also be avoided, the bureau said.
One company, EasyTweet Profits.com, believed to be based in Surrey, England, claims that "Twitter workers" can earn up to $873 "before you go to bed tonight."
No manager could be reached for comment.
The bureau discovered the website by linking to it through an e-mail that pledged "a large following with Twitter" and "hundreds of paying, repeat customers." The message suggests that tweeting for cash has been featured in a slew of media outlets and that the practice earned one person $390,746 in a year.
The website, which features a punchy design and variations on Twitter's blue bird logo, advertises a free weeklong trial of the company's instructional "Twitter Home Business Kit." Customers are asked to provide a credit card number to cover a nominal shipping fee for the compact disc, which presumably trains job hunters to tweet for money, the bureau said.
But the lengthy terms and conditions say that the seven-day trial includes the time it takes to ship the CD and that customers are charged $47 a month if they do not cancel within that time period. The negative-option marketing tactic, whereby the onus is on the customer to cancel a transaction to avoid being charged, is being used on most websites pushing Twitter schemes, Southwick said.
TwitterProfitHouse.com, for example, has a nearly identical look but bills customers $99.99 a month. The site is connected to a blog, Make-money-on-twitter.com, that trumpets the success of a purported practitioner.
The Better Business Bureau said such blogs tend to be phony, featuring photos of checks that have been used "countless times" on similar suspect sites and adoring testimonials in closed comment sections.
Bureau investigators also noticed that multiple Twitter accounts were posting messages with identical text, all linking to the websites, Southwick said.
Elliot Weingarten, a manager in TwitterProfitHouse.com's call center, said that once the company became aware of the bureau's concerns, it decided to stop marketing and taking orders for the CD.
"We had our terms and conditions, and we weren't scamming anybody," Weingarten said. "But we just don't want to be linked to what the bureau is saying is a scam."
The company later said that once it made sure it was "fully compliant," it hoped to relaunch its marketing campaign.
The websites first emerged in late spring, and the Better Business Bureau has not heard any complaints from customers, Southwick said. But similar scams that promised major payouts for conducting specialized Internet searches have netted about 1,000 complaints in a year, and those are "only the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Tracking the companies is nearly impossible, Southwick said. Listed addresses often route to random mailboxes, and phone numbers are usually disconnected or busy.
Barbara Ling, an entrepreneur who runs a forum about earning income online, looked into TwitterProfitHouse.com at a skeptical visitor's request.
Her conclusion: Consumers are responsible for reading terms and conditions, and it is notoriously difficult to get money back from companies that market Twitter schemes.
"These companies make it sound so seductive that you run screaming at them flinging your wallet saying, 'Take my money,' " she said. "It's very scummy, but it's not necessarily illegal."