Jerald Marshall was searching for jobs online when he came across an ad for a Google work-at-home business. The ad featured a "Chicago Tribune News" story about Mike Steadman, a college dropout from North Carolina who was earning buckets of money placing links on the Google Web site.
"I get paid about $25 for every link I post on Google and I get paid every week," the story said. "I make around $10,500 a month right now."
But something about the story didn't seem right to Marshall. When he checked with the real Chicago Tribune, he learned the story was bogus. Experts say the ad is part of a growing trend on the Internet: companies using fake stories that co-opt the names of respected news organizations and other firms to gain credibility for their work-at-home business schemes. They dupe consumers into believing they are trusted companies with good reputations.
"It's a pandemic problem across the Internet. There are so many fake Web sites with the BBB seal as well," said Steve Bernas, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois. "If (consumers) see that it's supposedly endorsed by a newspaper, they think it's true. They think there's no need to check it out because (the news organization) did."
Business Kit for Google, the business behind the ad, didn't return a phone call. Several days later, the company attached to the Web link had changed its name to Google Fortune and the name of the publication in the ad was now the "New York Tribune News." Again, phone calls weren't returned.
A Google representative said the company is not affiliated with the Web site and recommended that users exercise caution when evaluating such claims.
Steve Baker, director of the Midwest Region for the Federal Trade Commission, said it is illegal for a company to disguise an ad as a news article and warned consumers to be suspicious of such ads. While he declined to comment on the Business Kit for Google offer, Baker said the FTC filed a case in July against a company running a similar scheme called Google Money Tree.
"If you have someone running an ad that looks like a newspaper article without labeling it 'as an advertisement' that's a deceptive act or practice in addition to any false claims in the substance of it," Baker said.
Consumers also need to read the fine print in such ads.
On the Business Kit for Google Web site the company says anyone "with a computer and basic typing skills" can earn up to $978 a day using Google. It offers a free startup kit with a charge of $1.97 to cover shipping and handling. But the fine print tells a different story. The free kit is actually a seven-day free trial, after which your credit card will be billed $79.90 a month for continued access to the system.
"What the big print giveth, the small print taketh away," Bernas said. "If someone asks you to pay to learn how to make money, that's the tipoff to the ripoff."
Marshall had his own advice for his fellow job-hunters:
"Just be cautious and make sure it's a legitimate source before you get vested in it," he said. "You think there's some credibility, you think that these are reliable sources and reliable companies, and they're not."