They promised quick and easy money to those struggling to make ends meet and the chance to earn it in the comfort of home, federal prosecutors said.
They asked wannabe entrepreneurs to pay an upfront initiation fee of $50 to $500, but enticed them to do so with stories of people raking in up to $5,000 a month simply by assembling booklets and mailing them to clients. To most, the proposition may have sounded too good to be true. But the alleged scam, orchestrated by an Ellenwood couple, lured in more than 200 participants, none of whom received any money in return, prosecutors said.
Federal and state authorities say "work-from-home" scams like the one alleged in the indictment handed up Tuesday are pulling in thousands through ads sent in emails, posted on job-hunter web sites and taped to telephone poles. Some involve up-front fees for stuffing envelopes or re-mailing packages, others involve financial transaction schemes and almost all target people looking for work, officials said.
With more than 4.7 million unemployed in Georgia, there is a big pool of job seekers to go after. The state's unemployment rate of 9.3 percent is a full percentage point above the national rate, the state Labor Department said.
The couple indicted Tuesday, Detrick Mattox, 32, and Jasmine Hudson, 29, ran their alleged scam out of an extended-stay hotel in Woodstock. To avoid consumer complaints and negative publicity, they frequently changed thenames of their businesses, operating companies called Jobs R US, Premiere Mailing Company and Nationwide Express Mailing, the indictment said.
Kendal Silas, a federal public defender representing Mattox, did not return calls seeking comment. Atlanta lawyer Ethenia King, who represents Hudson, said her client will plead not guilty.
U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said the indictment should serve as a warning to people who think they can begin earning money at home by simply paying an upfront fee.
"What's particularly reprehensible about this case and others like it is that they were preying on the people who can least afford to lose the money," she said. "There's a good chance many of these people were desperate for work."
For many living on the margins, Yates added, losing an upfront fee of a few hundred dollars can be devastating.
Helen Webb, of Atlanta, had been out of work for two years in July when a job-posting on the web site CareerBuilder.com caught her attention. An investment consulting firm said it was looking for a profit center assistant who could process payments to customers. It said the job paid $3,500 plus commissions.
"I'd been searching and searching," Webb said. "I thought, aha, I finally found a job."
After sending in her resume and filling out forms, Webb was told to open up an account at her credit union, which would then be linked to a Wells Fargo account controlled by the firm, she said.
She said she transferred payments of $4,800 and $5,000 from the Wells Fargo account to her credit union account and then wired the money to people in Russia, as instructed. When she returned Aug. 15 to make another $5,000 transfer she was told by a bank representative the arrangement was a scam and that should could be liable for the $9,800.
"This has been so awful," said Webb. "And I know I'm not the only one."
John Sours, administrator of Georgia's Office of Consumer Protection, said his office regularly hears complaints from victims such as Webb. "Too often, these schemes prey on people in crisis," he said.
Even the state's top consumer watchdog can get caught up in a scam that involved a work-from-home scheme. A year ago, Sours said, he learned his credit card's payment address recently had been changed to one in Aurora, Colo., and that he had been charged for a $651 purchase of Diesel jeans.
It turned out that a Russian crime ring had bought the jeans with Sours' credit card and then sent them to an 81-year-old man living at the Aurora, Colo., address. The man then re-mailed the jeans to addresses in the Ukraine and Russia, Sours said.
The elderly man in Colorado, who was living off Social Security, was victimized in the work-from-home scam; he had been paying the shipping costs for the jeans and was expecting money he never received in return for his work, Sours said.
"Most of the people practicing these scams are very bright," Sours said. "They live on the edge, take advantage of as many people as they can and hope to get a huge windfall. These schemes are growing, mutating, metastasizing."
Those who think they may have finally found an opportunity to make some money at home need to think twice, Sours said. "There's a general rule and it's so simplistic: if something seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is."
The Federal Trade Commission lists these examples of work-from-home schemes to avoid:
Envelope stuffing: For small fees, you can learn how to earn lots of money stuffing envelopes at home.
Assembly or craft work: You can make money by assembling products at home, after first investing money for equipment and supplies.
Rebate processing: Pay a fee for training, certification or registration and earn money by helping process rebates.
Online searches: Earn money by running Internet searches and filling out forms, after paying shipping and handling fees.
Medical billing: Pay an often substantial fee for computer software and then make money processing medical claims electronically.
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