Easy money, easy targets: staying safe from scammers

by Beacon Staff • September 28, 2005

An e-mail from "Mary Baker," an unknown person or organization who acquired an Emerson e-mail address, bombarded the network with an online offer promising to pay students $600 to $900 weekly if they agreed to participate in marketing surveys.,"Among the barrage of back-to-school e-mails that Emerson College students received in the first two weeks of school, one in particular stood out. Namely because, according to Dean of Students Ronald Ludman, the sender does not exist.

An e-mail from "Mary Baker," an unknown person or organization who acquired an Emerson e-mail address, bombarded the network with an online offer promising to pay students $600 to $900 weekly if they agreed to participate in marketing surveys.

NRG Surveys, the research marketing company that sent the e-mails, promotes online inquiries and recommends students "join a team that gets paid for just saying what they think."

Some students were immediately suspicious of the offer.

"I felt like it was probably one of those creepy scams you see at night on Channel 5 News," said Jen Colella, a writing, literature and publishing major who received Baker's initial mass e-mail. "I figured if I had gone any further they would have just taken my information."

Students Targeted for Scams

On the other hand, many students were tantalized by offers of easy money. If you were one of the many students who clicked on the NRG link included in the e-mail, you were sent to the company's Web site where five college-age models appear outstretched and leaping through flying surveys in the air. The site urges you to become a member so you can begin to make money as soon as possible.

Instead of instant cash, however, students receive a request for what NRG calls a "very reasonable, one-time membership fee of only $29.95." According to the Scam Busters Web site (www.scambusters.org/creditcard.html), by enticing students to enter their credit card numbers, the company attains personal financial information, which can potentially put students at serious risk.

Dean Ludman caught on to the scam and, within days, had sent an e-mail warning students of the company's illegitimacy.

"By providing such information to a company or individual that a student learns may be illegitimate, she or he also may be at risk for identity theft," Ludman wrote in an e-mail to The Berkeley Beacon this weekend.

For many students, Dean Ludman's e-mail was the only indicator that they were in any danger from "Mary Baker" and her company, which he believed to be one of these dangerous scams.

Ludman said the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a Web site that students can use if they think they have become the victim of identity theft (www.consumer.gov/idtheft). There, authorities will put a fraud alert on your credit agency accounts so no one can open 'instant credit' accounts without notifying you personally.

When Money Offers Don't Add Up

After noticing the $29.95 fee for NRG Surveys, many students decided not to sign up with the company. Those students received an e-mail days later from Baker saying, "A few days ago, you expressed interest in participating in our research team. I would like to remind you that we are still running a special discount for students from Emerson College. We have reduced our one-time membership fee from $29.95 to $10.00 only!"

The sudden change in price may have displayed itself as a warning sign to students to back off.

According to some students, the Web site itself was alarming in its vagueness. Displayed prominently throughout the homepage were promises to "earn more money while spending less effort."

By clicking on the "How It Works" button on the homepage, the user is brought to six steps. The first step is to join by entering your name and credit card information. The rest of the steps encourage the user to create a membership profile, be trained on "how to earn more money," and finally, "get paid and have fun."

NRG describes itself on its homepage as the future of marketing research and claims that its strategy is to become a bigger marketing firm by simply allowing members to get paid.

The only adjectives they use to describe these members, however, are "thousands."

There is no specific age, status or locale attributed to these packs of people who are successful through NRG except for on the "Testimonials" area of the Web site. Here, all of the students have something positive to say about NRG and are well-spoken with impeccable grammar.

"The online panel you created is not only helpful for business organizations, but also helpful to people that would like to earn some extra cash," said Tony Scott, one of the happy four.

Alison Hutton, a sophomore marketing major who viewed the Web site, summed up her reaction to the e-mail by saying, "It all just seemed really sketchy and unreliable. Just, overall, too good to be true. Too easy."

Protecting Yourself from Credit and Identity Theft

"Kids our age don't realize how violating it really is when something like that happens to you and how important it is to always be on the lookout," said Sarah Branzelle, a musical theatre major who had her credit information stolen.

Branzelle interned at a law firm in Washington, D.C. and had her credit card stolen from her purse during a lunch break. Over $1,000 in fraudulent purchases at Sears were made to her account and she had to wait a week for the money to be replaced- even after making an immediate call to her bank.

Branzelle was lucky, however, as it was her credit card, not her identity, that was stolen. According to Scam Busters, it is most important to protect your social security number: armed with this key piece of information and the contents of your wallet, an identity thief can begin to open new accounts in your name to spend more of your money.

Also, do not give your account numbers over the telephone or respond to e-mails that request your personal information, such as the e-mail sent by Mary Baker.

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