Bogus Weight-Loss Products, Fraudulent Prizes Top List Of Biggest Scams

More than 1-in-10 American adults fall victim to some sort of fraud, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission. And scams related to fraudulent weight-loss products are by far the most prevalent.

The FTC has just released a detailed survey [PDF] of consumer fraud in the U.S. for 2011. The agency found that in that year alone, 25.6 million adults (10.8% of the adult population) were victims of fraud. In total, the FTC knows of 37.8 million fraud incidents in 2011, meaning some folks were duped at least twice.

Not surprisingly, the most popular medium for luring in consumers was the Internet, where 1-in-3 victims got hooked into a scam. That’s up from 1-in-5 victims back in the FTC’s most recent survey in 2005. The Internet was also where an even larger percentage — 40% — of all fraudulent purchases made.

And while some might claim that print media is dying, it’s certainly still alive and well as a way for scammers to target consumers. The FTC survey found that 20% of victims were suckered by ads in newspapers and magazines, or through other printed items like direct mail, posters, and flyers. On the plus side, this is a drop of eight percentage points from the previous survey, and the percentages of actual fraudulent purchases made through the mail declined from 20% to 12%.

And telemarketers may among the most reviled form of solicitation, but scammers are only able to snag about 10% of their victims over the phone. However, about 30% of fraudulent purchases were transacted over the phone. Both of these statistics remain virtually unchanged from 2005.

The FTC broke down the types of fraudulent products and services sold to victims in 2011. You can see from the chart at the bottom of this page that weight-loss products –
nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, skin patches, creams, wraps, or earrings that were promoted as making it easy for consumers to lose a substantial amount of weight or allowing them to lose weight without diet or exercise, but which did not deliver as promised — were the most represented, accounting for 5.1 million incidents in 2011, more than double the number of any other single category.

Fraudulent prize promotions, in which sellers tell consumers that they have won a prize, but that they must buy a product or make some other payment before they can receive their prize, was the second most common category of consumer fraud in 2011 with 2.4 million incidents known to the FTC.

Here are the rest of the top categories, with the estimated number of incidents in parentheses:
-Unauthorized Billing for Buyers’ Club Memberships (1.9 million)
-Unauthorized Billing for Internet Services (1.9 million)
-Work-at-Home Programs (1.8 million)
-Credit Repair Scams (1.7 million)
-Debt Relief (1.5 million)
-Credit Card Insurance (1.3 million)
-Business Opportunities (1.1 million)
-Mortgage Relief Scams (800,000)

In terms of the characteristics of the consumers most likely to fall prey to these scams, the survey found that high school graduates were the least likely to have been fraud victims, while those who did not complete high school were the most likely to become victims.

Both people who identified as risk-takers and those who had just experience a negative life event — like the loss of a loved one, divorce, serious injury or illness, loss of a job — were much more likely to have been victims of fraud.

And those who admitted to having more debt than they could handle were significantly more likely to have been fraud victims than those who were more comfortable with the amount of debt they had.

If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam or know of a scam being perpetrated on others, you can and should file a complaint via the FTC’s complaint portal. If you are outside the U.S., file a complaint at econsumer.gov.

You should also report scams to the Attorney General of your state. The National Association of Attorneys General has this page with links to and info for each of the current AGs.