FTC lawyer seeks to weed out scams targeting jobless people
By Vickie Elmer,
As if the nation’s 7.8 percent jobless rate wasn’t burdensome enough, many Americans hunting for work are finding a new economic worry: scammers seeking to con them with nonexistent jobs, upfront fees for background checks or “business opportunities” that have little chance of success.
Christine Todaro is among a team of 200 Federal Trade Commission attorneys seeking to protect consumers from such scams.
Todaro takes on the perpetrators by helping to create new rules prohibiting predatory behavior and by taking scammers to court. For three years, she has worked within the FTC’s Division of Marketing Practices on a variety of areas, including the expanded business opportunities regulation.
“The reality is: I’m a consumer also. So my work does follow me everywhere,” Todaro said. “I’m constantly on the lookout for claims that might be deceptive.”
Such deceptive marketing is plentiful, so much so that when asked about her biggest headache at work, Todaro mentions choosing which cases and scams to pursue in a “rich environment” of consumer job and business opportunity fraud.
“In some cases, we’re targeting the biggest players that are out there, those that are injuring the consumers the most,” she said. One common job scam these days offers to place people in jobs with the federal government, usually for a fee. In reality, all federal jobs are posted at USAJobs.gov, the same site where Todaro landed her summer position with the FTC while she was in law school.
She’s spent a lot of time on business opportunity rules, which require disclosures before consumers sign on to assemble “angel pins” or land jobs as extras in movies or television. One company even falsely claimed it would help consumers recover money lost to other work-from-home or business opportunity scams. (Consumers lost $1.5 million to that one, the FTC said.)
“A lot of the new types that evolve are just some type of iteration that have existed for decades,” she said. For example, companies continue to promote and profit from envelope-stuffing, work-at-home businesses, she said.
“When I was in high school, I wondered can you actually make thousands of dollars in one week working from home?” she said, referring to the envelope stuffing ads. The answer, of course, is no and as she now tells friends and cousins and others: “If it sounds too good to be true, probably not.”
The expanded business opportunities rule, in effect since March 1, calls for clear written disclosures — on income expectations and results, any litigation against the business plus references who have purchased this business opportunity — seven days before the buyer pays for anything. The rule now covers medical billings and work-from-home opportunities.
Todaro stars in an FTC video that details the rule. “I think it is a great resource for people, really worthwhile,” she said.
Her work involves a mix of working with FTC investigators on cases, extracting pleadings, talking to consumers who file complaints, assisting with rulemaking and more.
The Federal Trade Commission is a crucial watchdog in job and business scams, but it’s not the only one available to job seekers and consumers. Margaret Riley Dikel, publisher of the Riley Guide job search Web site in Maryland, also likes Fraudwatchers.org and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, run by a consortium of agencies. She also said she thinks eConsumer.gov, which is global, is useful since “so much fraud is across the border.”
Dikel and another jobs expert gave a presentation at the National Career Development Association this summer, which highlighted some ways to spot suspicious job postings. “Scammers ... are getting better at setting up their Web sites and putting up job postings,” she said.
Todaro grew up in New York and Cincinnati, and had an interest in advertising and consumer behavior. She studied advertising and marketing as an undergraduate at Notre Dame and saw how information could be used to manipulate and deceive consumers. So she decided to go into advertising and marketing law, and graduated from the University of Cincinnati Law School in 2009.
She spent a summer working at the Children’s Advertising Review, a self-regulatory body, then one as a law clerk at the FTC, and joined the agency soon after graduating. “The FTC is definitely the place that I wanted to be, just because of the great work they do in protecting consumers,” she said.
“Consumers are a great resource for us. They let us know when things are out there,” she said. “If they feel they’ve been a victim, it’s important they file a complaint.”
Todaro speaks with enthusiasm of her job, laughing a little at the idea that there would be any typical day and talking earnestly about work that has “an impact on someone else’s life.”
“I’m doing the work that I really love to do,” she said.