Don't fall victim: Scams up as economy slides

Bellevue AARP forum helps consumers protect themselves against scams during the current economic downturn

Con artists have developed a new crop of techniques for swindling money from people who are desperate for financial relief during these hard economic times.

Investment scams are up amid the worst stock market decline since the Great Depression, and frauds are promising to help people qualify for payments from President Obama's economic-stimulus package.

The list goes on, which is why the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) hosted a forum on April 22 to help consumers learn how to protect themselves.

Around 300 people attended the Bellevue event, where representatives from various organizations – ranging from the attorney general's office to Microsoft – provided tips on how to avoid scams.

Eva Buck found out first-hand what it feels like to get duped. She was on the verge of losing her home when a man showed up at her door with a rescue plan. He promised to help her find a used car, a laptop, and new source of income through currency trading.

“I'd never even heard of currency trading before,” Buck said. “They promised me the world, and all I had to do was sign on the dotted line.”

The 36-year-old mother of two was really signing away her home, although she didn't realize it until a real-estate signpost appeared on her front lawn a year later.

“There were so many red flags,” she said. “I wish I'd seen it then, but at the time I didn't see it.”

Buck now lives in her mother's basement, and she's working to protect others who could fall victim to similar scams.

She spoke at the AARP event, and is helping pass new consumer protection bills, two of which have already been voted into law by the state legislature.

Experts say Buck's experience is increasingly common these days.

“Twenty-seven percent of the public is at risk of foreclosure right now,” said Washington state AARP Director Dick Shadel. “That's a huge problem, so there's all these scams emerging around it. You don't even have to target specific people. You can target everyone.”

Authorities warn that scammers often offer advice in exchange for fees, which is one of the first warning signs.

“The biggest red flag is: ‘I'll help you if you pay me money,'” Shadel said.

That shouldn't be necessary with all the free help available through organizations like Solid Ground, and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, both of which offer housing counseling.

The federal government also has a new web site called MakingHomeAffordable.gov that offers similar advice.

Legal help can also come free of charge. Buck sought assistance from the Northwest Justice Project with her case.

Now she's focused on getting the word out to others.

“I'm proud of what I'm doing,” she said. “I'm proud to say that this does happen, and if I can help one person avoid this from happening to them, I've done better than to sit back.”