For Kimberly Montgomery of Jefferson City, the unexpected phone call could not have come at a better time.
The stranger told her she qualified for a one-time federal grant of $7,000 and that she could use the money for virtually anything – to pay off medical bills, make mortgage payments, or even take a long-needed vacation.
“We desperately need a car,” Montgomery said. “I wanted so much to believe it was true.”
The instructions were simple: The caller told her to purchase something called a Green Dot MoneyPak card, load it with $290 in cash to cover the cost of processing the grant and then just sit back and wait for the government check to arrive in the mail.
Montgomery said she immediately called her husband, excitedly told him the news and suggested he might want to pick up a Green Dot card while he was out. Instead, he suggested she contact Better Business Bureau.
A BBB customer relations specialist gave Montgomery the bad news: there was no grant program, no $7,000, and the man with the thick accent was a scammer, intent on stealing her money.
Montgomery was crushed, but grateful. Losing $290 would have been devastating to her family, she said.
Every week, St. Louis BBB handles dozens of similar calls from consumers in rural towns, cities and suburbs across eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. The calls come from people who have received phone calls or mail notices of million-dollar lottery winnings, low-interest loans, free grant money or numerous other offers – all designed to squeeze money from unsuspecting victims.
In some cases, consumers contact BBB only after they have lost money in a scam and are looking for help in getting their money back or need guidance in reporting the theft to law enforcement. Last year, a St. Louis school nurse came to BBB after she paid nearly $4,700 in a phony debt-collection scam. In another instance, a custodian from Jefferson County contacted BBB after losing more than $41,000 in a sweepstakes scam.
But in other cases, BBB is able to steer consumers away from schemes before they lose anything to the thieves.
Recently, BBB counseled callers away from a variety of schemes, including mystery shopping scams, phony work-at-home offers and bogus grant and sweepstakes notices.
In a case similar to the one in Jefferson City, a Herculaneum, Mo., man was on the verge of paying a scammer $310 for what he thought was the final step in obtaining a $9,000 federal grant. He credits a BBB customer relations specialist with steering him away from the scheme. “I’m broke as a joke,” he said, “and I was looking for money any way I could get it. She saved me.”
A woman from Swansea, Ill., said she had been tempted by a fake $250,000 sweepstakes award notice, until she contacted BBB. A St. Louis woman told a BBB staffer she was ready to deposit a counterfeit $2,000 check into her bank account as part of a “mystery shopper” scam before BBB warned her that she was being duped.
In March, a woman who was on the brink of losing hundreds of dollars in a so-called “nanny scam,” contacted BBB after she noticed a BBB news warning about a University of Missouri student who was victimized in an identical scam. The woman read the warning online, recognized she was being duped and broke off communication with the scammer. Several other young women have recounted similar stories to BBB staffers in recent months.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said it is all in a day’s work for BBB. “Protecting consumers from these schemes is part of what we do best,” she said. “As champions of good, ethical business practices, we take protecting consumers very seriously.”
Corey said BBB’s work with consumers is supported by BBB Accredited Businesses. “These men and women believe that protecting consumers from scams and unethical business practices is a key part of BBB’s mission.
“We could not do our work without them.”
This article first appeared in the March issue of BBB’s Torchlight magazine.