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Stimulus Package Attracts Con Artists

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Stimulus Package Attracts Con Artists

Economy

Stimulus Package Attracts Con Artists

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's an industry that's doing well. One month after the economic stimulus package was signed, there are numerous scams trying to lure people with promises of free government cash. The Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau were sounding alarms.

From member station WCPN, Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: Kristann Hartley lives in northwest Ohio and heard that the stimulus package had money to help people weatherize their homes. So she used her computer to tried to find information.

Ms. KRISTANN HARTLEY: And I found a Web site. It was USPublicGrantServices.com.

KEITH: The Better Business Bureau says this Web site is a scam, like so many others out there, offering government money that doesn't exist. But Hartley didn't know that.

Ms. HARTLEY: It was a little bit less than a week earlier I received a phone call from a gentleman who said he was in Washington D.C. with the Department of Housing, and I had been approved for this grant.

KEITH: The man on the phone told her she could get up to $25,000. She just needed to provide a copy of her deed and estimates from contractors.

Ms. HARTLEY: You know, all that, and I was still, like, this is so exciting. I'm really glad I'm going to be able to do this.

KEITH: And then he told her about the $385 underwriting fee to be paid by cashier's check. That's when Hartley got suspicious. Calls we made to the operators of the Web site seeking comment were not returned. Sue McConnell is with the Greater Cleveland Better Business Bureau. And she says that as the economy has gotten worse, reports of scams have intensified.

Ms. SUE MCCONELL (Greater Cleveland Better Business Bureau): The stimulus package has given these scammers a new hook. Ah-ha, we can tell people, oh, you know, the stimulus package, the government has all this money now, they're going to help us.

KEITH: There are people out there just trying to steal personal information - are angling for some wired cash. And then there are businesses, McConnell says, that are less than legitimate, though, maybe not flat out illegal.

(Soundbite of typing)

KEITH: She goes to Google and types in stimulus plan to demonstrate how easy it is to accidentally end up on one of these scam sites.

Ms. MCCONNELL: Okay, I see a lot of sponsored links on the right hand side here - new Obama stimulus checks. I already received my grant, this says. Go to stimulusgrantsapproval.com

KEITH: Some of the Web sites look like personal blogs with regular people talking about how they got rich by applying for government grants. Almost all of the Web sites promised a free CD with information about applying for the grants. But they charge a small fee for shipping, which has to be billed to a credit card and that registers the customer for a subscription service.

Eileen Harrington is with the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. At a news conference in Washington last week, she described what happens next.

Ms. EILEEN HARRINGTON (Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection): But then, if you don't cancel within 14 days, and there is a very detailed and complicated cancellation procedure described in the text, you will be billed a one-time fee of $99.

KEITH: But wait, there's more - a monthly fee, too, and other charges. Over a year, Harrington says that subscription can add up to a $1000, all for stuff, she says, people shouldn't be paying for in the first place.

Ms. HARRINGTON: The government does not charge people to apply for a grant, and you shouldn't pay money for a list of government grants.

KEITH: But so long as some people do pay for those lists, there will be businesses willing to sell them. Real free information about the stimulus can be found on the government site, recovery.gov.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Cleveland.

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