Con artists have gone high-tech, using the Internet to defraud consumers in a variety of clever ways. Whether they're using the excitement of an Internet auction to entice consumers into parting with their money, applying new technology to peddle traditional business opportunity scams, using email to reach vast numbers of people with false promises about earnings through day trading, or hijacking consumers' modems and cramming hefty long-distance charges onto their phone bills, scam artists are just a click away.
Fortunately, law enforcement is on the cyber-case. Using complaints to Consumer Sentinel, a consumer fraud database, as their guide, law enforcement officials have identified the top 10 dot cons facing consumers who surf the Internet, as well as many of the fraudsters behind them. In addition to putting many online con artists out of business, the Federal Trade Commission, the nation's chief consumer protection agency, wants consumers to know how not to get caught in their web.
According to the FTC, here's what online consumers are complaining about most:
The Bait: Shop in a virtual marketplace that offers a huge selection of products at great deals.
The Catch: After sending their money, consumers say they've received an item that is less valuable than promised, or, worse yet, nothing at all.
The Safety Net When bidding through an Internet auction, particularly for a valuable item, check out the seller and insist on paying with a credit card or using an escrow service.
Internet Access Services
The Bait: Free money, simply for cashing a check.
The Catch: Consumers say they've been trapped into long-term contracts for Internet access or another web service, with big penalties for cancellation or early termination.
The Safety Net If a check arrives at your home or business, read both sides carefully and look inside the envelope to find the conditions you're agreeing to if you cash the check. Read your phone bill carefully for unexpected or unauthorized charges.
Credit Card Fraud
The Bait: Surf the Internet and view adult images online for free, just for sharing your credit card number to prove you're over 18.
The Catch: Consumers say that fraudulent promoters have used their credit card numbers to run up charges on their cards.
The Safety Net Share credit card information only when buying from a company you trust. Dispute unauthorized charges on your credit card bill by complaining to the bank that issued the card. Federal law limits your liability to $50 in charges if your card is misused.
International Modem Dialing
The Bait: Get free access to adult material and pornography by downloading a viewer or dialer computer program.
The Catch: Consumers complained about exorbitant long-distance charges on their phone bill. Through the program, their modem is disconnected, then reconnected to the Internet through an international long-distance number.
The Safety Net Don't download any program to access a so-called free service without reading all the disclosures carefully for cost information. Just as important, read your phone bill carefully and challenge any charges you didn't authorize or don't understand.
The Bait: Get a free custom-designed website for a 30-day trial period, with no obligation to continue.
The Catch: Consumers say they've been charged on their telephone bills or received a separate invoice, even if they never accepted the offer or agreed to continue the service after the trial period.
The Safety Net Review your telephone bills and challenge any charges you don't recognize.
Multilevel Marketing Plans/ Pyramids
The Bait: Make money through the products and services you sell as well as those sold by the people you recruit into the program.
The Catch: Consumers say that they've bought into plans and programs, but their customers are other distributors, not the general public. Some multi-level marketing programs are actually illegal pyramid schemes. When products or services are sold only to distributors like yourself, there's no way to make money.
The Safety Net Avoid plans that require you to recruit distributors, buy expensive inventory or commit to a minimum sales volume.
Travel and Vacation
The Bait: Get a luxurious trip with lots of extras at a bargain-basement price.
The Catch: Consumers say some companies deliver lower-quality accommodations and services than they've advertised or no trip at all. Others have been hit with hidden charges or additional requirements after they've paid.
The Safety Net Get references on any travel company you're planning to do business with. Then, get details of the trip in writing, including the cancellation policy, before signing on.
The Bait: Be your own boss and earn big bucks.
The Catch: Taken in by promises about potential earnings, many consumers have invested in a biz op that turned out to be a biz flop. There was no evidence to back up the earnings claims.
The Safety Net Talk to other people who started businesses through the same company, get all the promises in writing, and study the proposed contract carefully before signing. Get an attorney or an accountant to take a look at it, too.
The Bait: Make an initial investment in a day trading system or service and you'll quickly realize huge returns.
The Catch: Big profits always mean big risk. Consumers have lost money to programs that claim to be able to predict the market with 100 percent accuracy.
The Safety Net Check out the promoter with state and federal securities and commodities regulators, and talk to other people who invested through the program to find out what level of risk you're assuming.
Health Care Products/Services
The Bait: Items not sold through traditional suppliers are proven to cure serious and even fatal health problems.
The Catch: Claims for miracle products and treatments convince consumers that their health problems can be cured. But people with serious illnesses who put their hopes in these offers might delay getting the health care they need.
The Safety Net Consult a health care professional before buying any cure-all that claims to treat a wide range of ailments or offers quick cures and easy solutions to serious illnesses.
Can you avoid getting caught by a scam artist working the web? Not always. But prudence pays. The FTC offers these tips to help you avoid getting caught by an offer that just may not click:
Be wary of extravagant claims about performance or earnings potential. Get all promises in writing and review them carefully before making a payment or signing a contract.
Read the fine print and all relevant links. Fraudulent promoters sometimes bury the disclosures they're not anxious to share by putting them in teeny-tiny type or in a place where you're unlikely see them.
Be skeptical of any company that doesn't clearly state its name, street address and telephone number. Check it out with the local Better Business Bureau, consumer protection office or state Attorney General.
Whether you're looking for a collectible or thinking about selling that treasure you discovered in the attic, an Internet auction may be just the thing for you.
Since their first appearance in 1995, Internet auctions have become one of the hottest phenomena of the web. They offer buyers a virtual flea market with an endless range of merchandise from around the world — and they give sellers a storefront from which to market everything from sports memorabilia to computer systems to millions of international buyers.
Whether you're a buyer or a seller, there's a smart way to do Internet auctions. Here's how to make sure you get the most from your auction action.
How Auctions Work
Internet auctions are bazaars. In most cases, sellers offer one item at a time, but sometimes sellers offer multiple lots of the same item. The auction web sites often refer to auctions of multiple items as Dutch or English auctions. At some sites, the seller may be required to sell all items at the price of the lowest successful bid. At other sites, the seller is entitled to the prices bid by each of the highest bidders.
Occasionally, Internet auction sellers set a reserve price, which is the lowest price they will accept for an item. Some sites disclose the reserve price during the auction.
The bidding for each auction closes at a scheduled time, when the highest bidder wins. In the case of sales of multiple lots, the participants with the highest bids at the close of the auction are obligated to buy the items. If no one bids at or above the reserve price, the auction closes without a winner. At the close of a successful auction, the buyer and seller communicate — usually by e-mail — to arrange for payment and delivery of the goods.
Kinds of Auctions
Internet auctions can be business-to-person or person-to-person.
Operators of business-to-person auction sites have physical control of the merchandise being offered and accept payment for the goods. In person-to-person auctions, individual sellers or small businesses offer their items for auction directly to consumers. Generally, the seller — not the site — has physical possession of the merchandise. After the auction closes, the seller is responsible for dealing directly with the highest bidder to arrange for payment and delivery.
Buyers may have several payment options, including credit card, debit card, personal check, cashier's check, money order, cash on delivery and escrow services. However, all sellers do not accept all forms of payment.
Credit cards offer buyers the most consumer protections, including the right to seek a credit from the credit card issuer if the product is not delivered or if the product received isn't the product ordered. Typically, sellers using business-to-person auction sites accept payment by credit card. But many sellers in person-to-person auctions don't. Usually they require payment by cashier's check or money order before they send the item to the winning bidder.
Some sellers agree to use an escrow service. For a fee — generally 5 percent of the cost of the item, paid by the buyer — an escrow service accepts payment from the buyer via check, money order or credit card. The service releases the money to the seller only after the buyer receives and approves the merchandise. This helps protect buyers from ending up empty-handed after paying their money. The flip side? Using an escrow service can delay the deal. As with any business transaction, investigate the escrow service's reputation before signing on to the service.
Occasionally, sellers agree to send items COD, with the buyer paying when the item is received.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, Internet auction fraud has become a significant problem. Most consumer complaints center on sellers who:
don't deliver the advertised goods;
deliver something far less valuable than they advertised;
don't deliver in a timely way; or
fail to disclose all the relevant information about the product or terms of the sale.