Special Reports

Another oil spill concern: A wave of scams

Scroll through Craigslist in cities along Florida’s Panhandle and in Alabama, and dozens of ads appear with offers for expensive training guaranteed to net jobs cleaning up oil.

Not all the jobs are real. Not all the training is legitimate.

Neither are claims by at least two publicly traded companies that say they were involved in cleanup operations from the Gulf oil spill.

Just as the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters prompted an outpouring of financial help, people looking for a quick profit have surfaced since oil began gushing after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April, preying on people who are unemployed, looking to make fast cash in the stock market or donate to the needy.

“Whenever there’s an emergency situation like this, there’s people that are going to try to make money,” said Kathy Karshna, assistant director of the Workforce EscaRosa, a nonprofit jobs agency overseen by the state.

Some people — including the unemployed desperate for jobs — have paid hundreds of dollars for training that they say turned out to be worthless, or unnecessary, or they took a course but now find themselves beholden to the training company that provided it.

They include Misty Gill of Pensacola. After taking a course in hazardous materials training, the company then asked trainees to pay a hefty fee, Gill wrote in a complaint to the Florida attorney general’s office.

“They have not provided us with work and have asked us to pay a fee of $450 to provide us with our (course certificates),” Gill wrote. She didn’t pay the fee and is still looking for a job. “The oil spill has created scam after scam. Please address this company for its actions.”

Many companies are now offering HAZWOPER training as the oil approached Gulf beaches. HAZWOPER, which stands for Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard, is an Occupational Safety & Health Administration certification and may be required for some types of work, including some oil spill cleanup jobs.

But most oil spill cleanup training should not cost a dime, OSHA spokesman Jason Surbey said.

“Training for shoreline, boom laying, or skimming is being done by BP, or its contractors, and is free,” he said in an e-mail. “The only training that is not being paid for by BP is the 40-hour HAZWOPER training which is required of supervisors or boat captains.”

Karshna said if people looking for work are determined to get training, they should ask training companies where their graduates have gotten work, get references from other people about training programs and be skeptical of offers of online-only training that sound too good to be true.

“There’s so many of these training institutions popping up. Some of them may be good. Some may not,” Karshna said.

Billy Hoskins of Palm Harbor reported some of the ads he saw to the attorney general’s office. Hoskins, who is unemployed, was looking for work, but was taken aback by the expensive training requirements.

“Those of us unemployed are BARELY paying our bills,” he wrote in his complaint to the Florida attorney general. He believes middlemen — temp agencies and staffing companies — will end up profiting on the backs of hopeful workers. “Please do something before it is too late.”

His complaint and others have been referred to the Department of Environmental Protection, the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism and Community Services and the attorney general’s Economic Crimes Division for investigation.

At the same time online training offers have exploded, the SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority have issued warnings to people who hope to gain from the spill in another way: by investing in companies involved in cleanup efforts. The SEC has suspended trading of two publicly owned companies because of concerns public declarations the companies made about their work on oil cleanup projects.

Trading in shares of ACT Clean Technologies of California was suspended for 10 days at the end of May after it said BP was interested in using an oil fluidizer technology licensed by ACT. The news sent the company’s stock from below half a cent to 6.5 cents in late April and had averaged about 4 cents until the suspension a month later.

Ares Iodonis, director of shareholder relations, said the company is cooperating with the SEC — and still hoping to find a place for its technology in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Everything is being addressed,” he said. “We’re not in the Gulf performing cleanup right now. We are actively pursuing contracts.”

In late May, Green Energy Resources of San Antonio, Texas, issued a press release saying it had a contract to deliver Gulf-oil-soaked wood chips to five power plants in the southeastern United States.

“Woodchips are a proven technology that can absorb five to 10 times their own weight and can be utilized at sea, as well as the shore, to help prevent oil from lapping on the beaches,” the release said.

A few weeks later, the company’s director and secretary resigned and the company issued a new statement saying Green Technologies “will not issue any further forward looking press releases.”

Neither company has been charged with any actual wrongdoing, the SEC said. Green Technologies did not return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

“If investors see press releases or receive spam faxes or e-mails from publicly traded companies that include claims that the company is involved in the Gulf cleanup effort, they need to exercise some skepticism and do their homework before investing,” said Jonathan Scott, an enforcement attorney with the SEC in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Federal Trade Commission has issued its own warning about scams and fraud that could prove as slick as the spill. Fake charities, government workers and claims processors fishing for personal information or fees should be expected to emerge.

The National Center for Disaster Fraud — created after Hurricane Katrina — has chimed in as well. So far, the center has received more than 40 complaints.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said everyone needs to be on alert — as they always should be. That goes for people close to the spill and others watching from afar who want to help by donating money.

“Know who you’re dealing with. Check with us to make sure the charity or business is registered with us or whatever agency oversees that kind of business. Call our Consumer Services Division to check a company’s complaint history,” spokesman Terry McElroy said.

“And never, never, never provide any personal financial information such as credit card number, bank account number to a business or telemarketer that gives you a cold call.”

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