From Latin, it means “buyer beware.” It’s a phrase that conjures scenes from the famous tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Young Jack’s mother, filled with shame and frustration, regrets sending her son to market after finding out he’d sold their most valuable possession—their cow—for a handful of beans. Jack’s mother feared her son had been a victim of consumer fraud, and unfortunately, it is far from fiction.
In many ways, capitalist America is the perfect hunting ground for the man with the magic beans. America is one of the largest consumer nations on the globe. Securing an excellent deal on goods and services means bragging to your friends about how you got the new lawnmower for a song. The consumer feels intelligent and capable, as if they managed to somehow trick the store or salesperson into giving it to them at an attractive price. American consumers chase this feeling by attending special sales, racking up credit card debt, and turning coupon-clipping into an Olympic sport—all in the interest of outsmarting the man with the magic beans.
Luckily for American consumers, there are institutions that help protect them from consumer fraud, such as the Better Business Bureau, which identifies problematic businesses that might swindle American consumers out of their hard-earned money. There’s the Federal Trade Commission, a government agency policing business practices and policies to protect American consumers and regulate competition within industries to maintain a healthy, well-balanced economy. In the long century since both of these institutions were established, the man with the magic beans has also changed and evolved, just like any predator.
One of the most common types of consumer fraud in America is mortgage fraud. Owning one’s home is still very much a part of the American dream. Americans shop for homes for months, searching for the certainty they will not overpay for their homes. Those who have morbidly derelict credit are afraid to answer the phone, desperate to evade bill collectors, petrified of losing their home. They are perfect targets for criminals running foreclosure-rescue schemes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines it as “perpetrators profit by selling the property to an investor or straw borrower, creating equity using a fraudulent appraisal, and stealing the seller proceeds or fees paid by the homeowners.” Perpetrators convince the debtor they can transfer their poor credit into the name of a third-party investor (i.e. the perpetrator), renting their property until such a time their credit is once again in sufficient standing. The perpetrator fails to make the mortgage payments on behalf of the victim and pockets the profit.
As technology advances, there are more convenient ways to pay for goods and services with the rise of electronic pay, using applications and online services to pay bills. It might be the best way to avoid another common type of consumer fraud: debit-card fraud. Many Americans are familiar with credit card fraud but might believe their debit cards are safe. Ken Stalcup, a certified fraud examiner working with Somerset in Indianapolis, identifies these types of fraud for a living, but even he is not immune to consumer fraud. He was just paying the bill at a restaurant. The waitress disappeared out of sight with his debit card to clear his bill, and when she returned, nothing was amiss. However, Stalcup’s bank was alerted when it appeared his debit card was used to purchase computer equipment almost halfway around the world. The waitress had sold his card information, enabling other criminals to steal from him. His advice to other vulnerable consumers is to “avoid letting their debit cards out of sight and check their accounts daily.”
One of the most devious forms of consumer fraud is charity frauds. Fake charities are set up with the intention of exploiting humanity’s capacity for the desire to help those less fortunate than oneself using the same system that real charities use to collect legal donations. According to a 2011 statement by the FTC, they received more than 30,000 reports of people making donations to fraudulent charities. Just as easily as Americans are vulnerable to a good deal, they are also vulnerable to putting their money towards a charitable cause, whether out of actual benevolence or the appearance of such. These predators are especially fond of slithering out of the woodwork in the wake of natural disasters such as hurricanes like Katrina and Maria that devastated both New Orleans and Puerto Rico respectively. These tactics add a brand-new level of sleaze to consumer fraud, taking advantage of the American need to help their fellow man.
In addition to remaining an informed and skeptical consumer, there are other ways you can protect yourself from consumer fraud. Enlisting the help of a private investigator or a similar inquisitive entity can help you protect yourself from scams like those mentioned above and resolving these frauds after they are perpetrated. A private investigator’s job is to serve the specific needs of their client, diligently capturing the entire picture of how severely the consumer might have been affected by a particular fraud. Of course, they can be a perfect tool for exposing the agencies that claim to want your money and knowing exactly where the money is going. Local authorities are often overwhelmed by crime statistics that force them to practice triage when dealing with different types of cases. Private investigators have an invaluable list of tools at their disposal, which they can often use without the restraints legislation places on law enforcement. Whether you’re outsourcing to a third party or taking your personal consumer protection into your own hands, never let your guard down when it comes to the man with the magic beans.