Reviewing the Federal Trade Commission's law enforcement actions against crooks -- and in some cases against legitimate companies that mess up -- is a smart way to stay abreast of the latest schemes and scams that bilk consumers of millions of dollars annually.
Here's a sampling of swindles, deceptions and missteps in the marketplace that the FTC has cracked down on recently:
* WORK AT HOME: Last week, Texas-based Esteban Barrios Vega (doing business as EBV Promotions, Paymentech Promotions and Promotions of Service) settled FTC charges that he sold phony work-at-home opportunities nationwide since 2001.
Vega advertised the bogus job in Spanish-language newspapers, and by circulars and telephone, as "Excellent Work . . . Earn up to $1,000 a week. Easy work, no sales." When consumers called the toll-free number, they were told the work involved assembling various products at home. Few, if any, of the consumers who paid a fee of up to $149 received work or earned money, says the FTC.
Vega agreed to never again promote and sell work-at-home businesses or to use telemarketing. The settlement suspends a $280,000 penalty against him based on ability to pay.
* PHISHY BUSINESS: The scam is called "phishing," and it's the hottest identity-stealing scheme inundating e-mail inboxes today. Last week, the FTC closed a case against Zachary Keith Hill of Houston who used deceptive spam and copycat Web sites to filch personal information from unwitting consumers and use it for identity theft.
Posing as America Online or PayPal, the online payment exchange site, Hill e-mailed consumers that there had been a problem with their accounts. They were directed to a look-alike AOL or PayPal site and instructed to update their billing information by providing names, mothers' maiden names, billing addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, bank account numbers and bank routing numbers. He also asked consumers for their AOL screen names and passwords.
The FTC charged that Hill used stolen information to open credit card accounts and make purchases. Besides agreeing to a lifetime ban on using spam and phishing, Hill faces 46 months in prison on criminal charges.
* CHICKEN OUT: Always on the lookout for false advertising, earlier this month the FTC pressured KFC Corp., owner of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, to pluck its national TV ads claiming its fried chicken is healthier than Burger King Whoppers and is compatible with low-carbohydrate weight-loss programs.
The FTC pointed out that KFC's chicken may contain less fat than a Whopper but it also has more than three times the trans fat and cholesterol, more than twice the sodium, and more calories.
The feds said that low-carb programs such as the Atkins and South Beach diets do not recommend eating fried or breaded foods. KFC agreed to stop making claims for its chicken without scientific substantiation.
* SKY'S THE LIMIT: Last month, the FTC announced that if you were one of the tens of thousands of consumers who were defrauded by SkyBiz.com, you may qualify to get money back from the $20 million court-ordered redress fund the SkyBiz scammers agreed to in a settlement that bans them from multilevel marketing.
Consumers paid a $125 "associates" fee to join the Internet pyramid scam disguised as a legitimate business opportunity. It falsely promised quick riches -- thousands of dollars a week in earnings. SkyBiz.com victims will be notified by e-mail from the court-appointed fund administrator but must submit claims at www.skybiz-redress.com.
Did the Automatic Teller Machine eat your card? That deposit you made at the ATM never made it into your account? Your bank statement shows an incorrect ATM withdrawal?
While most transactions at ATMs these days go, well, automatically, not all do. For tips on how to handle and avoid ATM problems, check out the latest issue of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Consumer News, a free quarterly publication available online at www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnspr04/ or by calling 877-275-3342 or 202-416-6940 in the Washington area.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.