About 10 years ago, I did a TV news story on a local nonprofit claiming to help battered women. Their funding method was to solicit boat donations, which they'd then sell to fund their charitable work.
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, which happened to be owned by the same group of 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 they were 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 20-plus years I've been doing consumer news. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit there have been times when 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 - use the following list as businesses to beware of. But if you're not so encumbered, the following proven moneymakers might lead to a lucrative new career.
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.
I did my first news story on weight-loss products more than 15 years ago. The subject was fat-burning pants that supposedly made you thinner while you slept. (Do a search for "fat-burning pants" and you'll see they're still being sold today.)
The expert I interviewed was an M.D. 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 or not is irrelevant - and you're off to the races.
And if you're worried about a watchdog government agency like the Federal Trade Commission raining on your parade, check out the next idea...
In 2008 we did a TV news story on a widely advertised headache remedy called HeadOn: You can watch the story here. 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. (Apparently, it's since been sold to another company and reformulated - you can read about it on Wikipedia.) Homeopathic remedies are supposed to work by essentially taking a curative active ingredient, then diluting it to the point where it's basically no longer present. In the case of HeadOn, for example, the active ingredient was diluted to the point of an eye-dropper in a swimming pool. Then it was put into wax tubes and was somehow supposed to cure a headache by being rubbed on the surface of the skin.
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.
For nearly 10 years, we've been getting annual economic predictions from a major Wall Street analyst, then comparing them with responses from people we stop on the street. The verdict? When it comes to things like oil prices, stock market returns, and housing prices, Main Street is often just as accurate as Wall Street. For further advice on how to become a paid prognosticator, see How to Play a Stock Market Expert on TV.
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 - the future is unknowable. But because the desire to see what's ahead is so compelling, this is an area rife with promise for anyone willing to convince others they have a crystal ball.
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. Just in case, might want to lay in a supply of sleeping pills.
My list is hardly complete - what can you add? Tell me below or on our Facebook page. And the next time you encounter someone who says there's no need for any sort of government regulation, send them a link to this article.
Follow Stacy Johnson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@moneytalksnews