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Taken for a ride on the information highway.

In an interview with 71 Nobel Laureates carried out by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 2001, 87% said the Internet would have a positive effect on improving, education; 93% believed it would improve worldwide access to libraries, information, and teachers; 72% believed it would play a sizable role in improving quality of life; and 85% said the Internet had had a positive impact on their work and lives.

Not a word about the most pernicious use of the Internet: the scam.

Scams, frauds, con jobs, rip-offs, swindles, stings, and misleading or dishonest claims exist in every form of human communication. It should come as no surprise, then, that thieves and con men have pounced on the freewheeling world of modern technology with the glee of a cat discovering an open door to the canary cage. They're using the fast pace and excitement of online auctions to get customers to part with their money without ever seeing the goods. They're using it to sell fraudulent business opportunities, to inflate the price of stocks, and to promise people everything from high earnings at home and college degrees without studying, to cures for incurable illnesses. They're tricking people into giving them credit card numbers, e-mail addresses, Social Security and telephone numbers. Then they're using the information to put money in their own pockets.

Stay at home and earn big bucks

In one of the most egregious forms of Internet fraud, scam artists prey on the vulnerabilities of people who, for reasons of health or age, stay at home and find the Internet a way to maintain contact with the world in terms of information gathering, business dealings, shopping opportunities, and emotional support. According to a Harris Interactive Poll conducted in 2000, computer users with disabilities reported spending approximately twice as many hours online as others did.

To con artists, they're a captive audience, the perfect mark.

Typical are offers to make money at home by assembling simple toys, stuffing envelopes, processing insurance claims, or doing medical billing, Most of these sound too good to be true and that's because they're not telling the whole story, which invariably involves the customer paying something upfront--via credit card, personal check, or money order--for parts, mailing lists, software, advertising costs, or training sessions.

Stay at home and find the cure

The Web is rife with promises of a cure, hence the proliferation of products "proven" to successfully treat MS--or heart disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes, arthritis, and other medical conditions. This hurts in several ways. Consumers who believe the claims not only lose their money, they risk potentially dangerous side effects or interactions with other medicines--not to mention forgoing legitimate therapies that might help them.

The claims that make these "cures" sound so promising are the very ones consumers should be wary of. The expressions "scientific breakthrough", "miraculous cure", "secret ingredient", or "ancient remedy", for example, are almost always dead giveaways of a scam afoot. Consumers should also beware of any claim that a product is an effective cure for a wide range of ailments--no product can cure multiple conditions or diseases. Heartfelt testimonials from people you've never heard of are commonly used to sell all manner of snake oil. And any claim that the medical profession is part of a conspiracy to keep the product from the public for reasons of greed is a sure sign that the product is something you can do without.

The lure of the credit card

Viewing adult images online is another source ripe for scamming customers. Jon Kingsley * was victimized in just this way. "I tried to cancel my membership to a particular site," Kingsley said, "and that's when I realized there was no phone number or address. And no matter how many times I e-mailed to cancel, it kept showing up on my Visa bill." Kingsley admits that the nature of the site made him too embarrassed to report it to any official bureau. The charges stopped only when Kingsley canceled his Visa card.

The "buyout"

To this day, Ted and Laura Whitehall * have no idea how the private insurance company knew about their situation. Ted had just started collecting a disability check for $700 a month when he got an e-mail message offering him a lump-sum buyout of the disability insurance policy. "The offer was for $70,000, which seemed like a lot to us," Ted recalled. Luckily, the Whitehalls consulted a few friends before they accepted the offer. They learned that if they held on to the policy, it would wind up being worth much more than what they were being offered. "It sounded better than it was," Ted concluded.

The thrill of the auction

The Internet has become a "virtual marketplace", and nowhere is the shopping excitement as high as on auction sites like eBay. Online auctions are also a con man's vision of paradise. Take the case of thenighthawk2000, aka William Gajdik. According to attorney Tom Keith of the United States Attorney's Office in Central Illinois, Gajdik sold $750,000 worth of rare coins, Rolex watches, "flawless" diamonds, and computers in three weeks to people from all over the United States and abroad. There were no satisfied customers, however, because the merchandise didn't exist. Complaints started coming into various law enforcement agencies, which ultimately led to Gajdik's arrest and conviction.

"eBay is always on guard, but there are always frauds," Keith said. "With someone who strikes fast and skips town, it's difficult to get any satisfaction."

Don't get scammed, get smart

Be alert to extravagant claims about performance or earnings potential. Before you sign a contract, read the fine print and get all promises in writing. Make sure you check out a company's return and shipping policies. When you're asked for credit card information, check that the information is sent to a secure server. Never give out your Social Security number. Be careful about making purchases with an ATM/debit card; it doesn't have the same kind of loss protection as a credit card. Be extra wary about investing money in any opportunity you learn about over the Internet; at the very least determine that the company also has a phone number and a physical address.

Finally; trust your gut instinct. If the deal doesn't feel right, don't do it.

* Not the real name

When dot com is a dot con

The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs brochure The Web of Lies: A Consumer's Guide to Internet Scares is available free online at: www .nyc.gov/html/dca/pdf/weboflies.pdf. You can also get a free copy through the mail. Send your request, along with a stamped self-addressed #10 business envelope, to:

NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, Free Publications Unit, 42 Broadway, New York, NY 10004; tel: 212-487-4444

To file a complaint, or to get information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free: 877-FTC-HELP (1877-382-4357), or use the consumer complaint form at www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

For complaints about auctions: FBI/National White Collar Crime Center (Internet Fraud Complaint Center); Web site: www.ifccfbi.gov; toll-free: 800-251-7581.

To report pyramid schemes, identity theft, or travel and vacation scams: Federal Trade Commission; Web site: www.ftc.gov; toll-free: 877-FTC-HELP.

Online investing and securities scams: U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; Web site: www.sec.gov; toll-free: 800-732-0330.

Top Ten Dot Cons: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/dotcon/index.html

Top Ten Health-Related Dot Cons: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/dotcon/health.htm

Internet Fraud Watch, a project of the National Consumers League: www.fraud.org; toll-free: 800-876-7060.

Better Business Bureau: www.bbb.org/bbb

U.S. Postal Inspection Service: www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect

Call For Action, education and mediation services: www.callforaction.org; tel: 301-657-8260.

Barry Jay Kaplan is a free-lance writer.
COPYRIGHT 2002 National Multiple Sclerosis Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:internet scams
Author:Kaplan, Barry Jay
Publication:Inside MS
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
Words:1326
Previous Article:National Leadership Conference in Nashville. (National MS Society).
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