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Don't get stimulated by these scams

The FTC is warning against Web ads that promise you a chunk of the federal stimulus package -- for a fee or your personal information.

March 05, 2009|David Colker

Want a personal piece of the $787-billion stimulus pie?

Don't look for it in online ads that promise individuals a share of the money. They're scams, warn the Federal Trade Commission and the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which have tracked several sites and Facebook ads that offer consumers thousands of dollars in stimulus grants.

For a fee.

"It's taken scam artists no time at all to exploit headlines" about the stimulus package, Eileen Harrington, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said Wednesday.

The stimulus bill -- which funds programs in areas including energy, healthcare, technology and education -- was signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 17.

Some scammers didn't wait for that.

"We started seeing these ads pop up online, promising people could get $10,000, even before the stimulus package was passed," said Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Alison Southwick.

Several of the ads used pictures of Obama, including one distributed on Facebook that appeared to have him offering up a check in the manner of a car salesman.

Harrington said Facebook had agreed to take the ads off the social networking site when spotted.

At an FTC news conference Wednesday morning, she mentioned two sites that offered individuals information on getting stimulus grants -- www.jessicasmoneyblog.com and presidentobamagrants.com.

By Wednesday afternoon, neither could be accessed.

A paid ad on a Google search leading to "Jessica's Money Blog" included the line "Obama approved $12k stimulus checks and I already received my grant."

Harrington declined to comment about possible actions against the sites, both of which were registered through Web domain companies that didn't list site ownership or location information.

Another site mentioned by the Better Business Bureau, federalgovernment grantsolutions.com, is listed as owned by JRS Media Solutions. The company says it's in Pasig City in the Philippines.

The way the scam usually works, Harrington said, is that consumers are told grant information is available for a small payment by credit card. But buried deep inside the small print of agreements on the sites is enrollment in multiple paid programs.

"You can count on all sorts of unexpected credit card charges," she said.

Eventually, the consumer could be out several hundred dollars or even more than $1,000.

In addition to the sites, several e-mail frauds having to do with the stimulus package have been reported to the agency, Harrington said. The typical e-mail, which promises that the recipient has already been awarded a grant, asks for personal financial information.

Responding to the message could result in identity theft, she said.

Southwick said the stimulus scam was the latest version of government-grant frauds that have resulted in more than 1,000 complaints to Better Business Bureaus across the country.

"They usually feature testimonials from people who say, 'I got money to get out of debt, I got money and now I can buy Christmas presents.'

"The government does give grants to kids to go to college, to businesses in specific industries and for specific projects," Southwick said. "But they do not give you money to fix up your car."

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david.colker@latimes.com

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