Red flags in classified advertising

The following caution list has been prepared jointly with the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs as a reference for SCPA members in screening classified advertising. This guide is based on actual cases in South Carolina.

Generally Beware of:

  • Ads that are placed from outside of your market and ads that come from someone you don’t know. Use care if ads don’t include a local number for the person/business placing the ad. Watch out for ads that do not contain a telephone number. Also, make sure the insertion order has an address and telephone number on it.
  • Insertion orders that don’t ask the price of running an ad, or if the advertiser offers to pay for a month at a time with a credit card. The card number is often bogus and they count on you to not find out until the ad has already run.
  • An insertion order that only has an email address.
  • A payment check from the advertiser that has incomplete information or information that conflicts with ad information.
  • Ads asking for an upfront fee.
  • Ads coming from a foreign country with a U.S. mailing address.
  • If you don’t know where company is located, google the address and phone number to make sure it exists.
  • Promises and guarantees that seem “too good to be true.” If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Poor grammar and punctuation or unusually proper English (this usually indicates that the person placing the ad is foreign).
  • Relay calls – Relay is the telephone service intended for those who are deaf, or speech disabled. Beware any ads placed through a Relay operator. The scammer will call the newspaper through a Relay operator wanting to place a classified ad. In many cases, only through processing the credit card, did the paper discover the card and address were phony. There have been several Relay operator scams reported to SCPA and the Department of Consumer Affairs recently. 

Animals and Other “For Sale” Classifieds:

  • Locality – Beware of pet ads from outside of your trading area. Ads should have local contact information.
  • Pure breed dogs – Beware of ads listing pure breed dogs, other animals, or even rare collectibles and normally expensive items that are advertised for bargain prices. In many cases, consumers end up paying hundreds of dollars upfront for shipping and other costs and never receive the animal or other item. Credit cards for placing such ads are often bogus.

Credit Issue Classifieds:

  • Advance Fee Loans – Beware of ads offering advance fee loans or lines of credit. Many of these organizations are illegal under state and federal law. Scams ask consumers to send in money to get line of credit or credit card. Consumers then receive a card that is not valid or only valid at one location like a buying club.
  • Credit Counseling – Watch out for credit counselors and debt management/debt settlement companies that ask for money upfront or promise credit/loans to those with bad credit. Visit for a list of licensed credit counseling organizations.
  • Foreclosure Recovery Schemes – These ads solicit people in desperate situations. Most are not legit.

Employment/Investment Classifieds:

  • Exotic Investments — Ads touting exotic ways to make money, such as investing in satellites, gold mines or ostrich/mink farms, are often scams.
  • Government and postal jobs – Classified ads that imply an affiliation with the federal government and guarantee federal jobs or postal jobs are often scams. In many cases, consumers pay an upfront fee to get a listing of employment opportunities which are available for free.
  • Pyramid Sales program –A pyramid scheme’s purpose is in recruiting other members, and they are illegal in South Carolina. Make sure the product being sold has value.
  • Secret Shopper ads – Use caution with secret shopper ads as some are legitimate. Use caution when upfront fees are involved.
  • Work-at-home/make money from home schemes – Some work-at-home schemes include envelope stuffing, medical billing and transcription, or assembling craft projects. These are normally not legitimate employment opportunities. In many cases, upfront fees are involved.

Vacation/Time Share/Travel Club Classifieds:

  • Free vacations – Ads touting the promise of an exotic two-week vacation are often scams.
  • Rebates – Beware of ads where rebates or loaded value cards are given for attending a session or listening to a sales pitch.
  • Sale of time share – Beware of ads selling time shares. In a lot of cases, the property is foreclosed. Especially look out for ads telling consumers they don’t have to make any more payments.
  • Travel clubs — Travel clubs offer exclusive travel discounts, but the fees can be high and the rewards few. Many of these clubs are nothing but a scam. You pay to join and get things that you can get on your own. Buy vacation travel from a business you know.

Automobile Ads:

  • Advertised v. “actual” price – Watch out for auto ads where the advertised price is not the “actual” price the consumer must pay. The advertised price usually includes all the possible rebates a consumer could get, but usually doesn’t.
  • Government surplus vehicle property – These ads claim to offer consumers steep savings by directing them to government and private auctions of seized vehicles or other confiscated property. These ads do not offer clear information on a corporate address or phone number and are simply out-of-date listings that are available free.

Other Areas of Concerns:

  • Foreign lotteries – It’s your lucky day! You just won a foreign lottery! And the cashier’s check to cover the taxes and fees is included. All you have to do to get your winnings is deposit the check and wire the money to the sender to pay the taxes and fees. You’re guaranteed that when they get your payment, you’ll get your prize. Foreign lotteries are illegal. The check is no good. South Carolinians have mostly seen problems with Canadian and Irish lotteries.
  • Government grants – Be wary of ads claiming free government grants. In most cases, these scam ads ask consumers to call a toll-free number where the operator asks the consumer to send a processing fee for a list of grant sources. Anyone who guarantees a grant is likely to be interested in their own financial gain, not the consumer’s.

If you are unsure about an ad or have info on a new scam, please contact SCPA.

You can also access resources from the South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs, including the latest news on advertising scams and a complete listing of organizations that are licensed to do business in South Carolina.