"I Got a $12,000 Stimulus Check in Less than 7 days. Get Yours!" Over the past week, this attractive-sounding offer appeared in a Google text ad. Other ads have claimed "Obama's Giving You Cash" and touted "$40,000 [y]ou don't ever have to pay back!"
But both the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau are cautioning consumers about ads that promise easy access to government money, ads that they say have multiplied since passage of the economic stimulus package.
"The bottom line on this is, these are scams," says Eileen Harrington, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The stimulus is not passing out checks to individual consumers."
In an investigation, PC World found multiple sites that offered to send "free" information on how to obtain government grants. Some of those sites asked for personal information--such as name, employment status, and household income--in order to determine whether we "qualified" for grant money. Once we submitted our information, the sites asked us to pay a shipping and handling charge for the information on getting stimulus money--information that Harrington says is probably publicly available.
And that's where things got interesting. At site after site, hefty monthly membership fees were buried in the fine print. And as we looked more closely at one site, following the path from the ad to the offer, we discovered something unsettling: Even as we were editing this story, that path changed repeatedly, sending visitors to several different sites.
Back to that ad about the $12,000 stimulus check: Clicking on it led to a page entitled "Jeff's Grant Blog." The site's domain, jeffrysgrantblog.com, was registered anonymously via the Enom domain registrar on February 13.
The page has a photo of a young man, and the caption underneath reads: "My name is Jeff Donahue, and I started this blog because I want everyone to know how I went from being broke to completely paying off my debt in 7 days by spending a few minutes filling out a form online that qualified me for a Free $12,000 Financial Aid Check from the US Government."
Elsewhere, the site says you can get grant money for almost anything--home repair, personal expenses, even paying off debt. Numerous testimonials vouch for the service (but all are signed with screen-name handles--lee1010, ravensfly, and such--as opposed to full names). All you have to do, the site says, is pay about $3 to cover shipping costs for your "free grant kit."
When I first looked at "Jeff's Grant Blog" on Friday, all of its links led to a shopping-cart site with copyrighted content attributed to a company called Financial Crisis Grant, LLC. There, next to a large photo of President Barack Obama, the site presented a form to enter your information, pay a shipping charge, and--the site said--receive a check "in as little as seven days."
Also on the page was a graphic labeled "Grants in the Media," with logos from MSNBC, CNN, and other major media outlets.
To pay the shipping charges, however, you had to provide your credit card information. And by doing so, you authorized Financial Crisis Grant to bill you, indefinitely, a $79.95 monthly "membership fee"--as you would have seen only if you happened to click on the small "Terms and Conditions" link buried at the bottom of the page. The terms of service didn't make clear what exactly you received in exchange for that membership fee. Canceling within seven days of placing the order was the only way to avoid the first charge.
What's more, the terms stated that any "chargebacks" or "reversals" would be considered "potential cases of fraudulent use of [the] services and/or theft of services." Assuming that you received the company's kit and a password to its site, the terms stated, any refund requests would be "vigorously fought" and could lead to the company's "reporting the incident to the appropriate authorities in your state to investigate theft of services." The terms also stated that all site activity and IP information were being "monitored" and could "be used in a civil and criminal case" against you in the event of a requested refund.
At least a few claims of abuse by Financial Crisis Grant have begun to surface around the Internet, with one posting appearing on the Rip-off Report site just weeks ago.
On subsequent visits, we saw that "Jeff's Grants Blog" had altered its links numerous times, pointing to different pages on different days. The page it linked to on Saturday was called Grant One Day, hosted at the domain grantoneday.org. While the title, the graphical look, and the contact information were all different (among other things, a video of a young woman promoting the offer began playing as soon as you reached the page), the basics were the same: Grant One Day would send you free information if you paid for shipping and handling.
The Grant One Day "Terms and Conditions" listed a membership fee of $94.89, however, in contrast to the previous site's charge of $79.95. The language regarding the "vigorous" fighting of all refund requests was still present.
By Monday, Jeff's Grant Blog was linking to yet another site, federalgovernmentgrantsolutions.com, whose "Terms and Conditions" indicated it was operated by a company called JRS Media Solutions. This time the membership offer wasn't buried in the terms; it was in small print under the button for submitting credit card information, and involved signing up for not one but three subscription services with monthly fees.
But the terms still contained a surprise: By submitting an order, the user would be agreeing that any complaint they had with JRS would be brought in the Phillippines. The terms also specified that by submitting personal information, the user was agreeing that "JRS Media Solutions, its associates, sponsors and co-sponsors of this offer may contact you by means of telephone, e-mail or other sources of marketing, even if your number is found on a do not call registry or listed on an opt out list pursuant to the CAN-SPAM Act." A Google search for "JRS Media" turned up numerous customer complaints in various online forums.
The original "Terms and Conditions" document--that is, the one for Financial Crisis Grant, LLC--listed a contact address in Orem, Utah, for Financial Crisis Grant. Doing a Google search led me to four other business names operating at the same address: Economic Crisis Grant, USB Grants, My Grant Drive, and EZ Grant Source. Each has its own Web site with essentially the same configuration and offer. In addition to the Utah address, at the time of this writing, three of the five businesses I found on Friday listed a jurisdiction address in the Mediterranean nation of Cyprus.
All five of the sites I saw had toll-free phone numbers that, according to a reverse toll-free number lookup utility, are all operated by the same Voice-over-IP service. When I dialed the number listed for Economic Crisis Grant last Friday, a woman who identified herself only as Jen picked up and agreed to answer questions for this story.
Jen confirmed that the multiple company names I had found at the same address were all part of the same organization.
"We help people who seek financial assistance and provide customers with information on federal grants and programs," Jen said when I asked what the organization did.
I next asked if an average person could actually get this federal grant money within days, even without a business- or education-related reason. Jen said yes.
When I asked what the $79.95 monthly membership fee bought, Jen responded: "It's just a monthly fee, your membership." I asked again what one actually received for that fee, and a long silence followed. Jen asked me twice to repeat my question, and then finally said: "It's a membership fee, monthly, when you are involved in our program."
At one point Jen told me I could use an online discount code to pay a lower fee.
She was, however, unable to tell me whether the media outlets whose logos were depicted on the shopping-cart page had actually aired coverage about the organization's services, and if so, where I could locate those reports.
A Broader Problem
The Better Business Bureau's national office in Arlington, Virginia, has seen an explosion in sites that make offers tied specifically to the stimulus package.
"We've received complaints from people who had to actually cancel their credit cards to keep from getting billed, because they couldn't get hold of anyone to cancel the service," says Alison Preszler, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau.
The circumstances Preszler described were a dead-on match with my observations: The Web sites claim to get you quick and easy money, they use misleading language (such as statements definitively indicating that you "qualify for a free grant"), and they feature testimonials from people who can't be traced easily. Moreover, they hide sizable fees somewhere in their small print, typically making no mention of them on the sites' primary pages.
"These Web sites make it look like it's very easy and you just get a $10,000 check for breathing," Preszler says. "That's not how it works."
Harrington says the Federal Trade Commission last week issued an alert about sites promising easy access to stimulus money.
Even if you do qualify for some type of government grant, Preszler and the FTC's Harrington both say, there's nothing these companies could send you that you couldn't find for free on your own.
"At most, the people who part with their money this way are going to receive a few pieces of paper with publicly available information about a variety of public programs," Harrington says. "Nobody is going to get money from the government by paying money to these operators."
BBB Warning on the Way
The Better Business Bureau is planning to release its formal warning next week, Preszler says.
Representatives from Google, meanwhile, say they use a combination of automated systems and user-submitted complaints to find and remove any potentially problematic ads. Preszler also says that Facebook recently removed similar ads because of numerous user complaints.
"Ever since the stimulus package started getting bounced around, these Web sites have started trying to take advantage," Preszler says.
Senior Editor Yardena Arar contributed to this story.