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E-mail offers too good to be true

In May of this year I received an e-mail from AHWA in Los Angeles looking for people to stuff envelopes at $50 for 250. For $35 I was to receive a starter kit and after finishing and returning it, the $35 would be refunded.

My check was cashed, but I haven't received a thing. Trying to send an e-mail did not work. I also wrote a letter on July 15 asking for my money back _ nothing. Can you help? Lisa Keenan

Response: Uh-oh, one of the most common work-at-home schemes, envelope stuffing, has gone high-tech. We're afraid your chances of ever seeing your money again are virtually nil. Three months ago we wrote about the pre-Internet version of this scam. Here's how it generally works:

The promoter places an ad for people to send off for information on making a lot of money stuffing envelopes. After receiving the information and returning the registration fee, what you get are generally instructions to turn around and place an ad like the one you responded to, and the cycle continues. In this case, the promoter went straight after your money.

When scams come through the mail, our advice is always to write "suspected fraud, deliver to postal inspector" across the front of the envelope, and drop it in the nearest mailbox.

In the case of e-mail fraud, there are two things you should immediately do: Alert your Internet service provider and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Contact its Consumer Response Center at its toll-free number, (877) 382-4357; TDD: (202) 326-2502; or write to Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20580. Complaints may also be filed online at the FTC's Web site: http://www.ftc.gov.

The FTC does not resolve individual problems, but it looks for patterns of possible law violations against which it can take action.

While we're on this topic, here are other e-mail scams the FTC urges folks to beware of. According to the FTC, the following "dirty dozen" are the most likely to arrive by bulk e-mail:

BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES:These solicitations make it sound easy to start a business that will bring in lots of earnings, up to $1,000 or more a day. And you can start without much work or cash outlay. Imagine! The bottom line is that many of these turn out to be illegal pyramid schemes.

BULK E-MAIL: This scam sells you e-mail lists, software or other information so you can send out your own bulk e-mail. The problem is that sending bulk e-mail violates the terms of service of most Internet providers. Some states regulate bulk unsolicited commercial e-mail. Few legitimate businesses use bulk e-mail.

CHAIN LETTERS: Chain letters, in which you're asked to send a small sum of money to the top names on a list, replacing them with your own, and then sending the message on, are nearly always illegal whether they arrive by mail or e-mail. Do not be misled by claims that the scheme is legal, even if something such as a recipe is involved.

WORK-AT-HOME SCHEMES: Envelope stuffing tops this list of schemes. Another is craft assembly. After buying supplies and doing the work, you're generally told your work is not satisfactory. There goes your money.

HEALTH AND DIET SCAMS: The bottom line is that if these miracle pills really melt the fat and let you lose weight without exercising or changing your diet, we would all be skinny.

EFFORTLESS INCOME: These schemes offer everything from megabucks exchanging money on world currency markets to newsletters telling you how to get rich quick. If they worked, wouldn't we all be rich?

INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES:Outrageously high rates of return with no risk? Investment opportunities in offshore banks? Offers that are vague about the nature of the investment? These are all red flags and warn of possible Ponzi schemes, in which early investors are paid off with money contributed by later investors.

CABLE DESCRAMBLER KITS: Buy and assemble your own cable descrambler so you can receive cable for free. Most don't work, and if they did, they'd be illegal. You would be stealing.

GUARANTEED LOANS OR CREDIT, ON EASY TERMS: These offers often involve home-equity loans with no requirement of equity in your home, or guaranteed, unsecured credit cards regardless of credit history. Neither the loans nor the credit cards come through. Would you make a loan to someone with no guarantee of getting your money back?

CREDIT REPAIR: No one and nothing can repair your credit but time, effort and a personal debt repayment plan.

VACATION PRIZE PROMOTIONS: If you get e-mail stating that you've "won" a fabulous vacation, know that in most cases you will generally have to pay for upgrades to make the vacation bearable.

Our advice if you get such e-mail offers is to hit the "delete" key.

If you have a question for Action, or your attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call (727) 893-8171 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request. Names will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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