FTC's con game database for 2010.

How to protect your pockets.
March 22 2011 7:14 AM

The Grifter's Hit Parade

America's most popular confidence games, 2010.

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A guy comes up to you, you make a call, you send in a brochure, it doesn't matter, 'There're these properties I'd like for you to see.' What does it mean? What you want it to mean. (Pause.) Money? (Pause.) If that's what it signifies to you. Security? (Pause.) Comfort? (Pause.) All it is is THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU. (Pause.) That's all it is. How are they different? (Pause.) Some poor newly married guy gets run down by a cab. Some busboy wins the lottery. (Pause.) All it is, it's a carnival. What's special … what draws us? (Pause.) We're all different. (Pause.) We're not the same. (Pause.) We are not the same (Pause. Sighs.) It's been a long day. (Pause.) What are you drinking?

Ricky Roma in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross

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Poor Ricky Roma. In 2010, timeshare fraud failed to rank among the top 10 most common consumer swindles, as measured by the number of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission. It's the 19th-most common, responsible for only about 1 percent of all complaints—and that's when it's lumped in with other kinds of deceptive offers for free or low-cost vacations and travel. In 2008 it ranked 17th, and in 2009 it ranked 18th. Pretty soon Mamet's play (it later was adapted into an excellent movie) may be all we have to remember a lost art.

Identity theft, on the other hand—the appropriation of somebody else's Social Security or credit card number—has held the No. 1 spot for at least the past three years. It was responsible for 19 percent of all complaints to the FTC in 2010. That marks a slight decline from 2009 (21 percent) and a somewhat larger decline from 2008 (26 percent). But identity theft is still the reigning champ. My Slate colleague Jack Shafer argued in 2006 that the concrete harm caused by such privacy breaches is usually minimal. But as cons go, identity theft would seem to offer opportunities to scale up that are difficult to acquire elsewhere. If I were to advise an aspiring young swindler about the most profitable illegal path to wealth—not something, mind you, I'm likely ever to do—I would probably say, "Go identity theft, young man (or woman)."

Identity theft is well ahead of deceptive, bullying, or outright phony debt collection, the category that holds the No. 2 spot. Debt collection prompted 11 percent of all consumer complaints to the FTC in 2010—a slight uptick from 2008 and 2009, when misbehaving debt collectors prompted 9 percent of all consumer complaints. With consumer debt headed downward, it seems unlikely debt collection will maintain its privileged spot for much longer.

I derive these and other statistics from the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2010 and from its predecessor volumes for the previous two years. The FTC shares its complaint database only with law-enforcement agencies (unlike the Consumer Product Safety Administration, which recently made its complaint database available to all, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has shared such information with the public for many years). One day perhaps the FTC will hop aboard the full-disclosure bandwagon. In the meantime, the FTC provides a pretty delectable feast of data about trends in consumer complaints to the agency. Here, at last, we have a guide to the most popular cons in America—which is to say most popular with con artists, not with the unhappy people who alert the FTC that they've been conned. David Maurer (linguist author of The Big Con, a classic 1940 book about life on the grift that later inspired the Oscar-winning movie The Sting) would have loved to get his hands on this baby.

Let's take a moment to study the main findings.

FTC-Reported Cons, 2010.

Internet services have been ranked No. 3 for the past two years, having in 2009 dislodged various cons associated with shop-at-home and catalog sales (many of these through the Internet, though also the telephone or mail; auctions through eBay and other Web sites are not included in this category). Shop-at-home is now No. 5. "Internet services" refers to undisclosed charges, misleading trial offers, and blocked cancellations from Internet providers; various funny stuff from entertainment, gambling, and social networking Web sites; and spyware, malware, and adware. These last three, I suspect, are enough to rank Internet services No. 3 with a bullet. Internet services complaints currently represent 5 percent of all complaints to the FTC. Plenty of room for growth there. I wouldn't be surprised to see this category displace debt collection at No. 2.

It's a relief to see prizes, sweepstakes, and lotteries at No. 4. Maybe some of the old craft ("To collect your prize just pay this fee!") has not been lost to posterity after all. An interesting new wrinkle is that the con man (or woman) now pretends to work for some government agency that is supervising delivery of your sweepstakes winnings! "Now if you'll just wire the money to this foreign country. …" It does make you wonder whether humankind is getting, well, dumber.

Wire transfer, I'm surprised to observe, was the most common method of payment to swindlers in last year's consumer complaints to the FTC. It was responsible for 44 percent, well ahead of such seemingly likelier methods as credit cards (24 percent) and debit cards (14 percent). That appears, however, to be a one-year blip, possibly reflecting publicity accorded the FTC's $18 million settlement with MoneyGram International, the country's second-biggest wire transfer company, in October 2009. For 2008 and 2009, wire transfer took second place behind credit cards, with debit cards placing a much closer third. That's still a lot of wire transfers! In 2010 con artists' preferred method of baiting the hook was email, which was responsible for 45 percent of all initial contacts with complainants. In second place was Ricky Roma's favored technology (when he wasn't haranguing that sad-eyed fellow in a bar): the telephone. Initial contact by phone came in at a strong 19 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009 and a mere 11 percent in 2008. Mail continues its inexorable decline as a medium for everything, including fraud. Initial contact by mail stood at 10 percent, down from 13 percent in 2009 and 14 percent in 2008.

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