Broke? Desperate? Scammers are looking for you

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Broke, desperate Americans are most likely to be targeted by scam artists and the amount they lose is rising, the National Consumers League said.

The non-profit advocacy group received 15,000 complaints last year about fraud, including 5,742 from people reporting they lost money, according to new data shared with Reuters.

The average loss was $2,332.03, about $500 more than in 2007. The amounts may seem paltry compared with what accused Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff’s investors lost but still were serious for those taken in by the scams.

With the United States in recession, the financial sector in crisis and Americans worried about keeping their jobs and homes, the National Consumers League urged extra vigilance.

“Consumers today should be even more on their guard than they were in the past. When you’re in desperate straits, you’re going to be more attractive to scammers,” said John Breyault, the group’s vice president for public policy.

Breyault said the number of e-mail scams -- like the one from the putative prince who will make you rich if you just send $10,000 -- are down, probably partly because of better spam filters.

But there were more Internet merchandise scams, he said, possibly because people in dire financial straits were hunting for bargains on unreliable websites.

His group also found more cases of “social engineering fraud” -- like “phishing” messages that purport to come from a bank and seek personal information that could be used for identity theft.

In some cases, people who previously would have brushed off suspicious schemes are now falling victim to lottery or work-at-home scams, he said.

“Anecdotally we have been hearing more than in the past that ‘I was trying to make a few extra bucks because I just lost my job,’” said Breyault. “They’re more susceptible because they’re more desperate.”

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by John O’Callaghan