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Be wary of work-at-home Offers

Q. I answered an ad that promised a great income doing medical billing for doctors’ offices. I had to pay for training and some very expensive computer software. I received a mailing list of potential clients, but I haven’t been able to sign anyone. All of the doctors I contact say they do their own billing. I contacted the company about a refund, but I can’t get an answer. Can you help?

A: The Consumer Protection Division of my office receives a lot of complaints about various work-at-home opportunities that turn out not to be as advertised. Many of the complaints are about medical billing opportunities. In fact, my office recently won a jury verdict against a medical billing company promoter.

My office had filed suit against Ruth Steiber and her businesses—Doctor’s Advantage and R&S Consulting Services for allegedly enticing work-at-home clients into thinking they could earn a substantial income by operating billing services for doctors. A Harris County jury found Steiber guilty of engaging in false, misleading, and deceptive acts under both the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Business Opportunities Act. The jury ordered $170,000 in civil penalties and attorneys’ fees.

My office is also seeking $400,000 in restitution for injured consumers. The court will rule on this within a few weeks.

During the trial, more than 30 victims testified that they had purchased Steiber’s program, which included software and mailing lists. What Steiber didn’t tell customers was that they had received the same mass-mailing list and brochures as many other customers in the Houston area.

The victims also testified that Steiber did not return calls requesting assistance and failed to provide the support and marketing expertise that she promised.

This type of scheme is just one of many we hear about. Some others include:

•Sew-at-home offers: This Oregon-based scheme promised customers high income and guaranteed work and training. The offer required clients to buy an expensive sewing machine.

Some clients never received the machine, while others never received the promised training or weren’t paid for work completed.

•Make-at-home necklaces: A Florida company offered to pay clients $60 each for necklaces assembled at home. Each client paid a $3,000 deposit and received supplies for 30 necklaces.

They were promised $1,800 plus a refund of their deposit and told they would receive a commission for recruiting new clients. The company claimed the profit would come from the sale of necklaces. In fact, the company used the deposits paid by new clients to pay off old clients, making it a pyramid scheme.

•Envelope stuffing: In this Iowa-based scheme, consumers were told they could earn $5,000 per week for a one-time fee of $139.

They were also promised a money-back guarantee and a full refund after their third paycheck. Consumers who mailed in the fee received nothing in return. In a common variation on this scheme, consumers who respond to the offer are told to run an ad in the newspaper offering, for a fee, to tell others how they can make money by stuffing envelopes.

If you believe you have been the victim of a work-at-home scam, you can file a complaint through my office. You can request a complaint form by calling us at (800) 621-0508. Forms are also available through our Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us. Remember, the best way to avoid being scammed is to remember this rule:

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!