Who’s responsible for the scam epidemic?

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By Christopher Elliott

For the 12th year in a row, ID theft is the number-one complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, the agency announced recently. It’s followed by the usual shenanigans, including debt collection schemes, bogus sweepstakes, and bank fraud.

But the real news is the reaction to the list, which is … well, nothing.

Other than a few polite pick-ups by the mainstream media that acknowledged the ID theft epidemic, the news was roundly ignored in favor of the latest primary election drama or iPad product announcement.

Travel wasn’t exempt. Not a single major travel news outlet — not a one — reported the news, even though they recorded 32,736 complaints in the amorphous category of ‘Travel, Vacations, and Timeshare Plans.”

The message to consumers couldn’t have been any clearer. Same old scams, same old advice — watch out for identity thieves, don’t wire money to strangers, careful when you shop online.

Yawn.

Hang on. Speaking on behalf of the last five remaining consumer advocates, would you mind spending just another minute with the FTC chart?

It’s more than a brag-list of how many phone calls and letters this federal agency fielded from ripped-off customers. It can also be a roadmap for a scam-free 2012.

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From ID theft to impostor scams

You have to look beyond the crimes to see what’s really happening. It’s more disturbing than the million-plus complaints against unscrupulous businesses, or even for that matter, the many cases the government refused to investigate.

For example, ID theft does not involve an invisible perpetrator snatching your social security number, credit card information, and password. It is the unfortunate confluence of careless consumers and clever criminals.

Impostor scams, another popular complaint category, isn’t a one-time ruse that only the naïve fall for. It’s about the career con artists using tried-and-true strategies for swindling good people out of their hard-earned cash, again and again.

And the thing is – and I say this as both a victim and a student of scams – there’s no quick fix.

The process of making sure you don’t leave your data lying around carelessly starts when you spend the first dollar of your allowance and develops as you become a gainfully-employed, taxpaying citizen, as I reveal in my book.

The erosion of basic consumer skills in an ad-driven marketplace

Too bad we failed to learn those basic lessons.

What is being taught, exactly? Thanks to an incessant barrage of ads and messages controlled by a thousand unseen reputation management operatives, we’re being programmed to become unquestioning consumers, obediently and uncritically buying, buying, buying.

One of the byproducts of this collective brainwash is that we’ll fall for anything, including the obvious scams. Our capacity to research, evaluate, and make informed purchases has been short-circuited, stunting our development as responsible consumers.

The fact that the watchdogs are often unresponsive doesn’t help. An FTC report quietly released yesterday suggests it’s sometimes hard to reach. 36 percent of people surveyed said they found it either “somewhat or very difficult.” 13 percent reported that it was “very difficult” to contact an agency representative.

The need for enhanced problem-solving skills

But back to us. We’re a little bit like toddlers at the mall, instinctively reaching for everything the adults leave at eye-level. When something goes wrong, we also react like babies, whining and threatening until we get our way. Instead we need to apply proven problem-solving techniques that should be part of everyone’s basic education. (Related: Here are the newest tourist scams (they’re worse than ever))

The result: We can’t help but be victims. To repeat: ID theft has led the FTC list for 12 years in a row – 12 years! You’d think we would have learned to avoid it by now, don’t you? (Here’s what you need to know about travel and money.)

What the list tells me, and what it should tell you, is that our problems go far beyond complaints filed with the feds. Until we recognize that we’re being influence by powerful forces with a vested interest in keeping us ignorant, uncritical and yes, gullible, we won’t be able to start the long journey toward enlightenment.

We are a nation of the scammed. But we don’t have to stay that way, do we?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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