Video: 'Twitter for cash' offers sell pyramid scheme

By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/17/2009 3:03:09 PM ET 2009-09-17T19:03:09

Here’s something to tweet about: Con artists are now piggybacking on the popularity of Twitter and Google to pitch their phony work-at-home schemes.

Stealing the good name and familiar logo of these well-known companies is an easy way to grab attention and look legitimate to potential victims.

“They prey on people who are desperate,” says Ohio truck driver Robert Anderson, who fell for a home-based job opportunity that appeared to be from Google. “They make money by lying to people, promising them the world and giving them a guarantee they have no intention of honoring.”

The ads promise you can make thousands of dollars a week for very little work. Bogus blogs and fake testimonials back up these ridiculous income claims. And a deviously clever marketing trick makes these get rich quick offers appear to be risk-free.

“Unlike other work-at-home schemes that ask for lots of money up front, these Google and Twitter versions start with a small payment and then whittle away at your bank account,” warns Allison Southwick with the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

All they want is a couple of dollars — billed to your credit or debit card — to send you “free” information about their money-making machine. Armed with your account information they can charge you for services or products you didn’t order.

In retrospect, the offer was "obviously" a scam, says  Barbara Simonie of Henderson, Nev. She responded to a pop-up ad for the “Google Home Business Kit.”

Simonie agreed to pay $2.95 for the “free” information but never received it. She did find a recurring charge of $59.90 on her credit card statement from a company called Pacific WebWorks in Las Vegas. The company, which has a failing “F” rating with the BBB, also does business as “Easy Google Cash.”

Simonie called the company and was told the $59.50 was her monthly membership fee for the Google kit — a fee she never knowingly authorized. The customer service agent promised a refund. That was back in July. Simonie is still waiting for her $182 credit.

Pacific WebWorks CEO Ken Bell told me in an e-mail that his company’s Google offers “clearly explain the terms and conditions of the customer’s purchase before any purchase is made.”  As an example, Bell sent a pop-up ad in which the monthly charge is disclosed, but only for users who click on a tiny "Terms and Conditions" link at the bottom.

Google Money Tree
The Google Money Tree, recently shut down by a federal judge, operated in a similar manner. The online ads for this scheme were simple and direct. “Learn how to make $107,389 in six months just filling out forms and doing searches on Google and Yahoo," they said.

Karen Hobbs, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission, says hundreds of thousands of people fell for the pitch and had the $2 to $4 handling charge billed to their debit or credit cards.

“We have discovered no one who was able to use the information on the CD in order to make money,” Hobbs says.

But there’s a bigger problem. Those who took the bait and requested the CD were automatically enrolled in a membership program. If they did not cancel within seven days, and in many cases they did not even get their promised information in that time, they were charged a monthly fee of $72.71.

The FTC sued Infusion Media, the Utah-based company that ran Google Money Tree, and got its Web site shut down. A federal judge also froze the firm’s assets, which means if the FTC wins this case, victims could get some of their money back.

Twitter now the hot “opportunity”
The bad guys, always looking for something new, have added Twitter to their bogus money-making offers.

A recent e-mail picked up by the Better Business Bureau reads: “Twitter Workers Needed ASAP, You’re Hired! Make Extra Cash with Twitter."

The e-mail links to EasyTweetsProfits.com, a company located in Surrey, England. The Web site claims you can make $250 to $873 a day working at home. The company offers a seven-day free trial of its instructional CD for just $1.99.

That seven-day window starts the day you order the CD, not when you receive it. That important piece of information is disclosed in the lengthy terms and conditions page. If you don’t cancel in time, you’ll be charged $47 a month.

Walter Moline of Yakima, Wash., saw an ad on Facebook for Twitter Profit House of Glendale, Calif. Same pitch: $1.99 for a free informational CD. Moline paid with his debit card and waited for the CD to arrive. Seven days later, he noticed the company had charged him $99.

Moline says he missed the fine print about the seven-day cancellation period.

“I had no idea I was signing up for a membership,” Moline tells me. “I feel I was taken.”

Moline was lucky. He complained to the Better Business Bureau, which helped him get the money back.

The BBB of Los Angeles, which is handling the Twitter Profit House complaints, gives the company an “F” rating.”

I wanted to talk to someone from Twitter Profit House and Google Money Tree, but no one responded to my requests for a comment.

The bottom line
Work-at-home scams are everywhere. They’re advertised online, in print and on TV. They often make bold promises, have numerous testimonials, and may use the names and logos of trusted companies, including news organizations. It’s all marketing hype designed to get you to let down your guard.

How do you protect yourself? It’s really very simple. Never pay for a job or information about employment opportunities. And be skeptical.

Google spokesman Jason Morrison tells me the company does not send out e-mail, use pop-ups or have infomercials that offer ways to make money with Google.

“We do not pay people thousands of dollars to fill out forms or post links or click on things,” he warns.  “If you see something promises a huge reward with very little investment or work or knowledge required, be wary.”

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