The Better Business Bureau has issued warnings to the public to be extremely careful about responding to online ads from companies offering free advice about how to get government grants. Shortly after the Stimulus Bill was enacted, dozens of websites appeared, claiming that President Obama's actions have opened the door to letting consumers get government grants that will help them pay off their credit card bills and get out of debt. However, the federal government never awards grants to consumers to help them pay their bills.
President Obama's efforts to jumpstart the economy have dominated headlines and news websites for months, and unscrupulous companies are aware that they can exploit these news stories to their own advantage to take advantage of families who have found themselves in desperate circumstances. These online businesses are charging visitors for information that is actually available for free from the government. As a result, consumers are being bilked out of money at a time when they can least afford to be draining their bank accounts.
Some complaints to the Better Business Bureau are from people who were charged more than $69.95 per month on their debit or credit cards. Internet analysis groups say that online searches of the word 'stimulus' regularly returned links to news stories and informational sites discussing the $787 billion package. But those searches also returned links to sponsored sites which had nothing to do with the bill; many contained ads for free information about grants, using 'happy customer' testimonials saying how people had received their stimulus check within days of applying for the grant.
Even widely popular websites have not been immune to the scams. In February, Facebook users encountered ads directing them to sites that were designed to look just like personal blogs posted by people who wanted to pass along information about how they were able to get thousands of dollars from the government in grants to pay off their outstanding debts.
Those posts contained links to other sites with a photo of Barack Obama and claims that part of the stimulus package is designed for people in need of aid from the government. These sites sell a 'kit' giving people advice on preparing grant applications, along with a directory of private grants and federal grants. They offer testimonials from people claiming that the program helped them avoid foreclosure, or that the money helped them buy Christmas presents, pay their bills, or fix their car.
Two companies, based in Las Vegas, have been the focus of hundreds of complaints to the Better Business Bureau across the United States. A Utah-based company has also prompted hundreds of complaints. All three companies carry an 'F' rating on the Better Business Bureau's list of company ratings.
Consumers have complained that they placed an order for a 'free' CD outlining how to get free grant money, but then they were charged $69.95 for the 'free' CD. Some people said that their credit card was also charged by other companies afterward. When they contacted the companies to complain, they were told that by signing up for the free CD they had, in fact, signed up for a 'free trial' of the program, as outlined in the terms and conditions clause on the website, and they were supposed to cancel the order within seven days or their card would be charged regularly each month. Because these companies did not provide refunds and were difficult or impossible to contact, some consumers had to ultimately cancel their credit card accounts in order to stop the monthly charges to their accounts.
Some of these websites have been edited or removed since the Better Business Bureau began issuing warnings about them. But the Bureau is still advising consumers to be extremely wary of websites offering free money from government grants. The federal government does issue billions of dollars every year in money for grants, but almost all of that money is given to assist students with college tuition, to support research projects, to help small businesses, or for other specifically outlined reasons. There is no cost to apply for a government grant, and all the information required to learn how to apply is available for free on specially designed government websites such as www.govbenefits.com, www.grants.gov, and www.sba.gov.
Consumers should heed the warnings of the Better Business Bureau. Don't pay money for information that can be found free on government sites, and never give out your credit card information online to unknown companies without checking them out first and reading the fine print carefully.