Years ago, I did a TV news story on a local nonprofit that claimed to help battered women. The nonprofit’s funding method was to solicit donations of boats, and to later sell them. Profits from sales of the boats supposedly were earmarked to help battered women.
While the “charity” wouldn’t talk to me, their tax returns had plenty to say. For example, in the year previous to my report, their income was about $23 million. But they donated only $50,000 to a local women’s shelter.
The vast majority of the remaining money — more than $20 million — went to marketing. It was paid to a for-profit company that happened to be owned by the same people who ran the charity.
After putting together my news story, I contacted the state attorney general’s office to report what was obviously a scam disguised as a nonprofit. Their response was essentially that it was unclear whether the nonprofit was doing anything illegal, and even if they were, state investigators were far too busy to look into it.
I’ve seen lots of similar stories in the 25-plus years I’ve been doing consumer news. And there have been times I wondered why I was working so hard while surrounded by others so willing to throw their integrity under the bus in exchange for some quick cash.
If you’re like me — saddled with inconvenient morals and ethics — beware the following types of businesses. But if you’re not so encumbered, these proven moneymaking methods might lead to a lucrative new career.
1. Be an investment guru
Don’t let a total lack of expertise hold you back — use this simple method to convince the gullible you’re the next Warren Buffett:
- Purchase a large list of likely investors. Divide them into groups.
- Send a different stock idea to each group. (Use a dartboard to pick them — it doesn’t matter.)
- Wait a few weeks. Throw out the group that received a losing recommendation. Send an additional pick to those who got a winner.
- Repeat this process until what remains is a group you’ve supplied with three or four consecutive winners.
- Offer them the opportunity to harness your “Super-Secret Proven Investment Method!” for a mere $199 a month.
If that seems like too much hassle, just run ads promising a 50% return. Your victims should be wary: After all, if you can earn 50% on your own money, you’d hardly need theirs. Don’t worry — that likely won’t occur to them.
For more on this topic, see my recent article “How to Start Your Very Own Investment Scam.”
2. Predict the future
Whether it’s love or money, we’d all like to know what’s going to happen next. Alas, life is complicated. There are simply too many variables for anyone to reliably know what the future holds.
But that doesn’t prevent everyone from psychic hotlines to Wall Street investment houses from promising you they can predict what’s ahead — and charging money for it.
Perhaps picking on Wall Street professionals is unfair: At least their guesses are educated, and they’ll admit their predictions are based on events subject to change. Psychics and fortune-tellers, on the other hand, operate openly without those constraints — and rake in millions doing so.
We all know — or certainly should — that the future is unknowable. But because the desire to see what’s ahead is so great, this is an area rife with promise for anyone willing to convince others they have a crystal ball.
3. Start a nonprofit
Call yourself a charity, and cash is sure to follow.
Whether it’s children or dolphins, if you show people pictures of mammals in distress, they’ll hand over money. Inexplicably, they’ll often do so without taking the few seconds required to check out a nonprofit at free sites like GuideStar.org or Charity Navigator.
Hate the idea of filing the paperwork necessary to start a nonprofit? Just fake it.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, I began seeing collection boxes on various store counters in my neighborhood soliciting donations for a charity called “The Orphans of 9/11.” Instead of dropping in my change, I called the charity to request their tax return.
Turns out they weren’t collecting donations in my state and didn’t use collection boxes at all. Someone had merely stolen their logo and fabricated the boxes. They’d been emptying them regularly for months, but I was the first person who attempted to verify they were legitimate.
When I called my local police department to report this despicable crime, they took a report but said they didn’t have the manpower to stake out the boxes and catch the thief. Their advice: Go around my neighborhood and inform the merchants.
4. Offer simple solutions to complex problems
From losing weight to getting rich, a lot of people are desperate to believe there’s gain without pain.
I did my first news story on weight-loss products more than 20 years ago. The subject was fat-burning pants that supposedly made you thinner while you slept.
The expert I interviewed was a medical doctor specializing in weight-loss research at a local university. I don’t need the script to remember his exact words: “There are two ways to lose weight: Eat less or exercise more.”
Because so many people are unwilling to exert effort to accomplish meaningful change in their lives, this field is wide open. There’s no shortage of problems out there. Pick one, create a product or service offering a simple solution — whether it works is irrelevant — and you’re off to the races.
5. Cure what ails
Create a product that promises a quick fix to a common illness, and you’re in business. Don’t worry about people reading the label — just create a catchy ad.
In 2008, we did a TV news story on a widely advertised headache remedy called HeadOn. The idea seemed appealing — rub a wax stick resembling lip balm on your head, and your headache would disappear.
HeadOn was marketed back then as a homeopathic medicine — a remedy that was supposed to work by essentially taking a curative active ingredient and diluting it to the point comparable to an eye dropper in a swimming pool.
If anything that ridiculous can be sold, what can’t be? Don’t be concerned the big drugstore chains will laugh you out of their office when you come up with your concoction. When I did my story, at least one major chain not only offered HeadOn, they created their own generic version.
I called the Federal Trade Commission to ask how they could allow a product so silly to be marketed so heavily. Their response: We generally don’t start an investigation until we receive lots of complaints. Even then, the process could take years.
6. Kick people while they’re down
While there’s always an audience for practically anything that promises a quick fix to a common problem, desperate folks are the mother lode for the unscrupulous. From foreclosure rescue to debt settlement to nonexistent government grants, many of the most successful scams target people down on their luck.
People drowning in a sea of debt and desperation will cling to any life ring you care to throw. Keep in mind, however, before wading in: It’s critical to be utterly devoid of decency.
The bottom line
If you’re looking to make a buck or two, and can leave your scruples at the door, there are plenty of opportunities out there. So, stop worrying about what’s honest and start thinking about what sells.
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