Whether we realize it or not, we have all been enticed to respond to advertisements that, while they appear to be legitimate, are nothing more than scams with deceptive, fraudulent information.
But according to several attorneys with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Alvaro Puig, Carolyn Hann and Patricia Poss, as well as D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, there are several recognizable signs that indicate potentially deceptive advertising. While not an inclusive list, many false ads focus on health and weight loss products, credit repair services, jobs and income and immigration.
“Whenever ads promise quick fixes, guarantee cost savings or emphasize the need to act immediately, consumers should beware,” Hann said.
“Any claim to remove negative information from your credit report should raise a red flag, if for no other reason than it’s both impossible to do and it’s illegal. Extended warranties, like for an automobile, are rarely worth the paper on which they’re printed. Consumers should read such documents and offers with great care before signing on the dotted line.”
“And if you’re offered instant credit or guaranteed a loan, with words that say something like ‘no one is denied,’ you should beware of these ‘opportunities’ as well. Consumers will not only probably lose their money but will not get what they were promised,” Hann added.
One longtime activist and reporter for The Carolinian (serving North Carolina’s Black community in the Triangle area) says she’s seen deceptive ads becoming more prevalent particularly for weight loss programs.
“There’s no one size fits all nor can you eat whatever you want and still lose weight,” she said. “And most weight loss programs have an exercise component included. And when you have to pay a lot of money up front, you can bet it’s just a scam,” said Octavia Rainey, a Raleigh-based longtime activist and writer for The Carolinian who admits she’s faced weight challenges, making her a prime candidate for such scams.
Senior citizens, the attorneys say, tend to be among those most at risk for falling victim to deceptive advertising, with ads promising dietary supplements that will counter the impact of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But there are others, like bogus envelope stuffing scams that say you can work from home and get reimbursed for your services which they say are fraudulent schemes.
As for immigration services, promises for easily-accessible green cards or quick-fashion work status legalization are other means of deceiving consumers.
Several signs that often indicate fraudulent advertisement include: a guarantee that you will make specific income; a no-risk promise on an investment; a promise that you can begin earning income immediately; and internet businesses, vending machines and display racks that guarantee tremendous financial opportunities but which more often do little more than rob consumers of their hard-earned savings.
Hann says the FTC has been successful in recovering and returning money to consumers who have submitted complaints (www.ftc.gov or 877-FTC-HELP) at an average of $3 million a year. Information submitted to the FTC becomes part of a secure data base and is also submitted to law enforcement agencies across the country.
Racine and his staff in D.C., remain hard at work on behalf of District residents with positive results including one joint lawsuit, filed along with 39 other states, that achieved success in a $102 million consumer protection settlement with Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corporation (EDMC) — a for-profit college operator. The settlement resolved allegations that EDMC made unlawful misrepresentations in advertising its educational offerings to prospective students.
“People should be able to take a business at its word. But whenever we discover that a company has unlawfully deceived consumers, we will bring actions against them,” Racine said.
Besides filing complaints, either with the FTC or the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, people can help reduce the effectiveness of fraudulent businesses by sharing their stories with others — keeping up their radar so that they’re more aware that deals which sound “too good to believe” tend to be just that — unbelievable.
“We can all be victims of scams. That’s why we have short articles posted on our website with tips intended to help adults recognize scams. For senior citizens in particular who have a lot of life experience and are smart people, helping them to recognize fraudulent advertisements, like sweepstakes, prize and grandparent’s scams, can be very empowering,” Hann and her associates said.
Participants in this article representing the FTC were part of a recent teleconference sponsored by New America Media.
In addition, this article was written as part of the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America, New America Media and AARP.