PORTLAND, Ore. -- Michael Simpson’s spiral bound notebook is filled with handwritten notes. There are names and phone numbers, all connected to a government grant program, that doesn’t exist.

The notebook details a trail of deception. The Portland man lost $16,000 to scammers offering a fake government grant.

“It makes me mad because I don’t have any money to lose. I’m on social security and I have a pension but I worked hard for my money,” said Simpson of Northeast Portland. “I have no idea where the money is.”

The Federal Trade Commission warns scam artists advertise “free grants” in newspaper classifieds or online. They also call victims out of the blue claiming to be from a government agency or some other organization with an official sounding name. The crooks promise money for education, home repairs or unpaid bills.

“They’re targeting all ages of consumers,” explained Charles Harwood of the FTC.

The trouble started for Michael Simpson after getting a phone call from a man offering a government grant. The caller asked basic questions to see if Simpson qualified.

“He came back on the phone and said, ‘Yeah, you have qualified for a grant and it’s going to be $60,000,'” explained Simpson, who was skeptical, but the man on the phone reassured him.

“He was a fast talker and when somebody is a fast talker and gives you a big line, sometimes you just sort of go along with the program not thinking about it,” said Simpson.

The scammer asked for Simpson’s credit card to pay a $2,000 processing fee

“He said, ‘What’s going to happen is, we’re going take some money off of this credit card and then once you get the grant, we’ll pay off your entire credit card,'” said Simpson.

The scam didn’t stop there. Over the next few months, the crooks demanded more money. They wanted thousands of dollars to help set up a business. To make it seem legitimate, the con artists sent Simpson contracts, business cards and a laptop computer.

“I’m thinking, 'they sent you a computer, this is the real McCoy,'” explained Simpson.

Looking through his notebook, Simpson now realizes that none of it was real. There was no business. He never saw the government grant he was promised.

“This could happen to anybody,” said Simpson. “These people are scam artists.”

The FTC explains crooks often claim legitimacy by using an official sounding name, like the “Federal Grants Administration.” The criminals also lie about where they are calling from.

“Scammers do a very impressive job of disguising themselves,” said Harwood of the FTC. “When they call, it is not uncommon for the phone identification device to say ‘U.S. Government’ or even ‘Federal Trade Commission.”

The FTC posted the following rules on its website to help prevent consumers from losing money to “government grant” scams:

  • Don’t give out your bank account information to anyone you don’t know. Scammers pressure people to divulge their bank account information so that they can steal the money in the account. Always keep your bank account information confidential. Don’t share it unless you are familiar with the company and know why the information is necessary.
  • Don’t pay any money for a “free” government grant. If you have to pay money to claim a “free” government grant, it isn’t really free. A real government agency won’t ask you to pay a processing fee for a grant that you have already been awarded — or to pay for a list of grant-making institutions. The names of agencies and foundations that award grants are available for free at any public library or on the Internet. The only official access point for all federal grant-making agencies is www.grants.gov.
  • Look-alikes aren’t the real thing. Just because the caller says he’s from the “Federal Grants Administration” doesn’t mean that he is. There is no such government agency. Take a moment to check the blue pages in your telephone directory to bear out your hunch — or not.
  • Phone numbers can deceive. Some con artists use Internet technology to disguise their area code in caller ID systems. Although it may look like they’re calling from Washington, DC, they could be calling from anywhere in the world.