By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud
When the economy goes into the tank, scammers seek to take advantage of consumers desperate for some extra cash. Unfortunately, due to trying economic circumstances, we find that consumers who would likely otherwise shy away from dubious business opportunities become more susceptible to them.
One such case involves a company advertising itself as "Google Money Tree," which operates a site called www.googlemoneytree.com. Over the past two months, NCL’s Fraud Center has received more than a dozen consumer complaints via our online complaint form. In addition, blogs and message boards focusing on publicizing work-at-home scams have noted numerous complaints about the company.
The scam appears to work like this:
- The victim receives an email or sees an ad offering a substantial weekly salary earned simply by “Posting on Google.”
- The victim is then directed to a download site where they enter in their contact information to receive a “Google Money Tree Kit” for “free” (though a $3.88 shipping and handling charge applies).
- Customers who enter their credit card information to order the kit are charged the $3.88 shipping and handling fee.
Sounds great, right? Ready for the Google Money Tree to start sprouting your riches?
Not so fast. Unfortunately, numerous consumers have reported that they receive nothing and are subsequently charged a $72.21 fee for access to the Google Money Tree. When they call to dispute the charge, they are told that they agreed to the monthly fee when they signed up to receive the kit and didn’t call to cancel within seven days.
It’s hard to believe that many consumers would have fallen for this trick if the $72.21 fee was readily disclosed. Where is this fee listed? Why, in hard-to-read grey text on a white background at the bottom of the page (above the attention-grabbing red “Check This Out!” sign pointing to photos of a Range Rover, mansion, and island retreat), of course! As stipulated, agreeing to receive the kit gives the consumer a 7-day trial access to the Google Money Tree private Web site where, presumably, the secrets of getting rich quick with Google will be revealed.
The Devil is in the Term and Conditions
As with most dubious work-at-home schemes, the devil is in the details; or in this case, the “terms and conditions” section. There, in tiny font, the red flags abound. First, consumers are alerted that the use of the Google Money Tree involves a negative option, a bill practice that has been deemed unethical by some (since the customer must “opt out” in order to avoid getting billed). The Federal Trade Commission enforces strict rules about how negative option billing programs can be advertised and disclosed via the Prenotification Negative Option Rule, which “requires companies to give you information about their plans, clearly and conspicuously, in any promotional materials that consumers can use to enroll.”
Second, the “Disclaimer of Warranties and Liability” section seems at odds with the advertised purpose of Google Money Tree. Specifically, the fine print states that:
“This Site is for informational purposes only, and is intended to provide helpful and informative material on the subjects addressed. googlemoneytree.com does not provide legal, financial, or any other kind of professional advice or services. To make sure that information or suggestions on this site fit your particular circumstances, you should consult with an appropriate professional before taking action based on any suggestions or information on this site.”
The Google Money Tree Web site advertises that this is a “limited time offer” and that consumers should “act now!” Why then, are consumers advised to “consult with an appropriate professional” before taking any action (presumably to include investing money) that Google Money Tree advises?
Finally, there is the dreaded “Consent to Binding Arbitration Before the American Arbitration Association,” clause which essentially prevents a consumer from trying to get their money back from Google Money Tree in court.
The dubiousness of Google Money Tree does not end at the Terms and Condition section. Since we’re inquisitive types, we took it upon ourselves to look a bit deeper into Google Money Tree. First, we checked with the Better Business Bureau of Southern Nevada (Google Money Tree is registered to a P.O. Box in Las Vegas). Lo and behold, Google Money Tree has an “F” rating with the BBB due, in part, to six complaints against the company. The good folks at the BBB told us that Google Money Tree does not have a valid business license and that they began receiving complaints about the business in November 2008, which is incidentally around the same time that our Fraud Center began receiving complaints as well (are we surprised?).
We also checked out the inference on Google Money Tree’s advertising Web site that they were written up in the New York Times and USA Today. The only “mention” of Google Money Tree in either publication was a November 12, 2008 story in the New York Times that mentions how a former Google employee’s friends call him “the Google money tree.” If this is what the operators of googlemoneytree.com feel amounts to an endorsement by the paper of record, they really are ambitious.
The Bottom Line: Avoid
For all intents and purposes, Google Money Tree looks like an extremely dubious enterprise, operating on the edge of being an out-and-out scam. Consumers should be on the watch for any get-rich-quick scheme, particularly those that promise large paydays in exchange for up-front investments in “training kits” or “educational materials,” especially if they involve recurring monthly fees. Because Internet companies like Google are respected names, scam artists frequently make use of their names to try and associate themselves with such companies’ good reputations. Remember to check out ANY company with the Better Business Bureau before sending them money and always, always, ALWAYS read the fine print. Finally, consumers who feel that they’ve been scammed by Google Money Tree or ANY scam should file their complaint at NCL’s online complaint form.