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Coupon Clippers

Scam:   Folks lured by the promise of $200 gasoline coupons for nominal shipping charges hand their bank account and charge card information to swindlers.

REAL FRAUD WHICH COSTS ITS VICTIMS BETWEEN $200 AND $500

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2004]

CONSUMER ALERT
"Gas Coupons" an Excuse to Get Bank Account Numbers

Our office has recently heard that telemarketers are calling households in Texas offering $200 worth of gas coupons for $3.95. Reportedly, the caller is very slick and convincing, with smooth answers to every possible question. The key is, he wants the consumer's bank account number so he can receive payment directly from the account.

We cannot say it enough: consumers should NEVER give out their personal identifying information or financial information to anyone they do not know. Be suspicious of anyone who calls you and then asks for that kind of information. Don't be pressured. Don't be tempted by grand offers. And don't be fooled by a caller who has all the logical answers.

They called you. You didn't call them. You do not know who they are. Be safe: HANG UP!

Greg Abbott
Attorney General of Texas
 

Origins:   Escalating gasoline prices in the U.S. have left many consumers feeling the pinch, with rising fuel costs serving to make vehicle use decidedly less affordable than in years previous. That as a result a greater part of the household budget has to be apportioned to transportation, leaving less to satisfy other requirements, has created a situation that provides swindlers with yet another ready-made opportunity to ply their trade.

Enter the "gas coupon" scam in which telemarketers offer $200 of gasoline vouchers in exchange for modest shipping and handling fees (typically $2 or $3) debited from consumers' bank accounts or charged to their credit cards. Those unwary souls who let their desire for something for
(next to) nothing get the better of them never receive the promised gas coupons — instead, they're left to discover they've fallen victim to a flimflam as one unauthorized charge after another gets racked up against their accounts, often to the tune of several hundred dollars.

The crime is real, as is the warning about it. The alert quoted as our example began to be circulated in the online world in June 2004. It was issued by Greg Abbott, the Attorney General of Texas, on 21 June 2004. Attorneys General of other states have issued similar cautions, including those of Maryland and Iowa.

The Iowa Attorney General specifically warns against doing business with a Las Vegas-based telemarketer who is peddling gas coupons purported to be worth $200 in exchange for a $1.95 checking account debit to cover shipping. That entity, variously known as Continuity Partners, CPI, American Values, AM Values, Wellnet, Blitz Media, Washball, UTalk, and U-Talk-Unlimited, is barred from doing business in Iowa as a result of its having defrauded a number of folks in that state with this scheme. By order of the Iowa Attorney General, the multi-named company is required to refund monies taken from those Iowans who fell for the con, but even those repayments have proved hard to collect, with some of the restitution checks bouncing like red rubber balls.

Consumers in the Tucson area have had to contend with U-Talk-Unlimited, one of the iterations of that Las Vegas-based telemarketer that was barred from Iowa. U-Talk-Unlimited makes the gas coupon offer along with a free trial of a long-distance calling card.

In Ohio, consumers were hooked by American Values, another of those Las Vegas iterations. Typical was the case of Amy Herrick, a Chester Township woman who had agreed to let American Values debit her bank account for $1.95 charge for those gas coupons only to find she'd been drained of an additional $221.80 by companies she'd never heard of or agreed to do business with. As well as the $1.95 charge she'd authorized, there was a second $1.95 debit, a $79.95 hit for a washball (a small plastic ball meant to be placed in a washing machine), and $139.90 siphoning by Utalk.

Those living in Kansas had to deal with Continuity Partners, still another of those Las Vegas iterations. Defrauded Kansans were gulled with an offer of $20 to $200 in gasoline vouchers in exchange for confirmation of a bank account number to cover the cost of shipping. Once that confirmation was issued, money began to be drained from those accounts via unauthorized charges against them.

Residents of Virginia have also reported receiving calls from the multi-named Las Vegas-based telemarketer. Those making the calls were said to have posed as representatives of the U.S. government offering $200 worth of gasoline coupons for a $3.95 shipping and handling fee.

Continuity Partners was forced by the Oregon Department of Justice to make restitution to those Oregonians it had cheated. According to the 12 February 2004 Oregon DoJ press release, Continuity Partners had lied to those it contacted, claiming they had been selected to receive $200 in gasoline vouchers from the US government "to help pay people back for the high gas prices," with these being redeemable at any of the major gas stations. Others victims were told the promotion was sponsored by VISA, and yet others were told they had been chosen in a random drawing of key customers of the major retailers. Consumers were informed the only cost to them would be a $1.95 charge for shipping and handling charged to their credit cards. They were instead signed up for a 30-day trial of a "U-Talk Unlimited" phone card, with said service triggering a credit card charge if at the end of the 30 days they didnt opt out of the plan.

When caught with its hand in the cookie jar by Oregon's Department of Justice, the Las Vegas-based telemarketing company with the revolving names laid blame for its actions on difficulties in supervising an independent phone center and claimed it immediately terminated those involved when problems arose. In light of the multiplicity of instances of its running similar operations in other states, such claim should be viewed with skepticism bordering on outright disbelief.

Our round-up of instances of this con being perpetrated in a few U.S. states represents just the tip of the iceberg and shouldn't be viewed as the definitive list of all the places this scam is being worked. We present it only as an overview of how widespread the con has become and in what various fashions it has been executed.

If this story has a moral, it is that there is often a dark side to "something for nothing" schemes. Our need to believe in the freebie is deeply ingrained and devoutly cherished, yet it is our very faith in this fiction that can work to set us up as pigeons, in that con artists need only wriggle this bait just a little to snare us in their webs.

Barbara "bargain hunters become the hunted" Mikkelson

How To Avoid Falling Victim To Unauthorized Payment Scams:
  • Do not give out bank account or credit card numbers over the phone if you didn't initiate the call to a reputable, known company. Be very reluctant to do business with any outfit that calls you (e.g., a telemarketing firm) rather than the other way around.
  • When tempted by a great deal proffered out of the blue by a business entity you have no direct knowledge of, remind yourself that offers which sound too good to be true generally are. Keep in mind that what is presented as a fabulous value for an amazing low price (e.g. coupons for $200 worth of gasoline in return for $1.95 mailing fee) might be no more than a set-up for the real purpose of persuading you to give up your financial information.
  • Be wary of any "free trial offer" that requires bank account or credit card numbers to cover shipping and handling charges. If the business is so interested in having you as a customer that it is willing to provide its product or service at no charge, why would it not also be willing to cover the cost of shipping?
  • Examine your credit card and bank account statements every month, keeping an eye peeled for unauthorized charges. Immediately challenge items you did not okay.
  • Stop believing in the chimera of "something for nothing."
Additional Information:
    Tucson BBB on Gas Coupon Scam   Free Gas Backfires on Consumers Who Fall For It
  (Tucson Better Business Bureau)
    Spokane BBB on Gas Coupon Scam   Questionable Telemarketers Use Gas Vouchers to Rip You Off
  (Spokane Better Business Bureau)
Last updated:   11 July 2011

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Sources:

    Harris, Sheryl.   "Never Give Out Bank Account Info on Phone."
    [Cleveland] Plain Dealer.   7 April 2004   (p. E1).

    Hrenchir, Tim.   "Police Warn of Gasoline Voucher Telemarketing Calls."
    Topeka Capital-Journal.   1 May 2004.

    Associated Press.   "Company Barred from Doing Service in Iowa."
    20 May 2004.

    Roanoke Times & World News.   "The Ticker: Scams."
    9 June 2004   (p. C8).