When Debbie Battaglia was looking for a way to earn extra money and stay home with her children, the classified ad she saw in the newspaper seemed to provide the perfect solution.
A company was offering to pay people to work in their homes burning designs onto picture frames. The company promised $4.25 for each frame, provided it met company standards. To get started, an employee only needed to send $40 as a deposit for a wood-burning kit and instructions.
Mrs. Battaglia sent the check and waited. Six weeks passed, and her check was cashed, but no materials came. She wrote a letter asking for the kit.
The supplies she eventually received were: a piece of compressed wood the size of a sheet of paper, a match-size sliver of wood, a razor blade, a photocopied design and a wood burner.
She knew she had been duped. And she's not alone.
As the effects of the economic slump linger, more people are being defrauded by work-at-home scams, according to the Maryland attorney general's office.
Ann Hammond, a supervisor in the office's consumer protection division, said the number of work-at-home complaints has at least tripled in the past six months. The office once received two or three such complaints a year but now gets complaints nearly every week.
In Maryland, it is illegal for companies to require people to pay money in advance for information or supplies to work at home. Any company found guilty of doing so can be fined up to $1,000 for the first offense.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service has reported a similar increase in complaints involving work-at-home schemes advertised through the mail. John Brugger, a postal inspector and spokesman for the service, said 96 businesses are being investigated for alleged mail fraud involving work-at-home businesses. Last year, there were 73 cases.
Actions taken against businesses also have increased. In 1989, the Postal Service initiated civil actions against 60 businesses. That increased to 89 in 1991. Usually, the companies are ordered to stop the practices and no punitive damages are assessed.
Common schemes include pitches to stuff envelopes, clip coupons, or assemble toys or equipment. Typically, victims pay money to receive materials or information. Some are sent instructions on how to place similar ads to fool others. Others receive nothing.
When victims try to complain, they often find that the "company" has no phone number. Its address is likely to be a post office xTC box.
Charles Jenkins was lucky. He actually got back the $25 he had sent to an envelope-stuffing scam.
Mr. Jenkins was enticed by an ad that promised he could earn up to $500 a week stuffing envelopes. His family needed the extra income, so he sent a $25 money order for what the Dale City, Va., company said was a registration fee. "That was close to our last, next-to-nothing money," the Middle River man said.
He expected to get a box of envelopes, but instead he received instructions on how he could place a similar ad and dupe others.
He called the consumer protection division, and the lawyers there helped him get his money back. But the company was not prosecuted.
The Federal Trade Commission advises people to check out companies as thoroughly as possible before agreeing to work. Ms. Hammond said it is often hard to distinguish between legitimate work-at-home offers and scams. She advised using common sense. "It's really ridiculous to think someone is going to pay someone $3 an envelope to stuff it."
Even the most professional-sounding ads can be scams. Sharon Hagerick responded to a classified ad for electronic circuit board assemblers. The ad promised to pay $13.50 an hour and said nothing about working at home.
Mrs. Hagerick received an application that explained the job was for at-home work. She had experience in circuit board assembly and thought the job would allow her to earn money while staying home with her child. The company promised to provide all parts, instructions and pay for return postage. The only requirement was a $38.90 registration fee, but the company promised a full refund if she decided not to do the job and returned all the parts.
Mrs. Hagerick checked the company out with the Better Business Bureau. The Pennsylvania company was listed and had no complaints against it.
"I thought I could go ahead and be OK," she said. She sent in the money order in late January, but no parts came. She is still waiting.