We were reminded again last week why advance fee loan schemes are such hideous crimes: they usually target those least able to afford the monetary losses.

An advance fee scheme is just what its name suggests. You pay one or more fees up front, with assurances from the con artist perpetrating the scam that your good faith payment will grease the skids and send money rolling your way. Trouble is, that never happens.

Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, or BCCP, sent out a news release on Thursday after an especially nasty example. An outfit calling itself BellBrook Finance Center claimed to be located in Belfast. Law enforcement officials in that community told David Leach, the principal examiner for the bureau, that they found no such company there — although our online research turned up several other websites using duplicate text with one registered in Belfast but in Northern Ireland.

The crooks solicited funds from the family of a deployed active duty service person from Virginia. They promised the family a $5,000 loan, after the family forked over $2,000 for insurance, an $895 lender’s fee and five monthly payments totaling $887.50. Family members had been planning to use the loan so the service member’s wife could visit her husband, who was deployed overseas.

When people follow through on advance fee loan schemes, they’re usually directed to transmit funds electronically, making recovery virtually impossible. They may be told to send the money someplace thousands of miles away from the company’s phony address. The layers of deception serve only to shield the crooks from the reach of the law.

Law enforcement officials in Belfast had received other complaints about BellBrook Finance Center. A call to the company resulted in a hang-up, once the company employee discovered officials were onto the scam.

Leach calls this incident “the most disturbing we’ve investigated in recent years.” He added, “BellBrook Finance Center preyed on a military family who could ill afford to lose thousands of dollars.”

The company’s website claims its employees are “independent financial advisers with over twenty years’ experience in the industry.” A Google search of a quote from the site returned identical, word-for-word quotes from, as another website called them, “preveous (sic) customers.”

David Leach notes that Maine has many reputable lenders who operate within the law and perform needed services in a responsible way. They register with the state, as required by Maine law, and consumers can check with the bureau to verify the status of legitimate lenders. Call 800-332-8529 or visit www.credit.maine.gov to check Maine’s licensed supervised lenders.

Advance fee loan schemes are generally among the top 10 ripoff lists consumer advocates compile each year. Be a smart consumer and check with reputable watchdogs, such as the BCCP, before deciding to send money to someone you’ve never met. You might change your mind in a hurry. For information, visit the Federal Trade Commission website at www.ftc.gov and search for “advance fee loans.”

Next week: a look at scams in the online pet market.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.