ONLINE FRAUD RED FLAGS
The Internet is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and offers shopping that can be just as safe as stores or mail orders. But unless consumers learn to identify online fraud indicators, those who buy online can open themselves up to the same scams that are common with offline shopping.
On the web, cyberspace crooks have the potential to perpetuate scams quickly, leaving no paper trails and bypassing all geographic boundaries. Some common "red flags" that strongly suggest a potential online scam include the following:
* "It's Now or Never"/First Come, First Served. Beware of pressure for an immediate response or frantic claims of limited availability. Any legitimate company will give you time to make a wise purchasing decision. Look on the web for a reliability seal from an online consumer protection group such as BBBOnLine and do some background checking before you buy.
* No Mail Please. If a seller requests payment in cash by a private courier or by check or money order through an overnight delivery service, be suspicious. He or she could be trying to get around postal fraud laws.
* "Free" for a Price. Don't trust an offer for "free" products or services that later asks you to send money or pay an upfront fee.
* Dazzling Presentation. Scam business advertisements, particularly those sent by e-mail, are often brimming with excessive CAPITAL LETTERS, dollar $ign$ and !!!exclamation points!!!. It's also not uncommon for these ads to include misspellings or grammatical errors. Con artists hope that a glitzy website or flashy e-mail ad will blind consumers into falling for a scam.
* "Get Rich Quick" Appeals. Con artists know exactly how to scam consumers who want to make big money quick with little work or effort. The explosion of e-commerce and internet-related businesses has made it easy for cyberspace crooks to con eager buyers into believing that hundreds of dollars invested in an internet business will instantly turn into thousands of dollars in profit over night. But the only person likely to make easy money in such schemes is the con artist.
ONLINE SHOPPING TIPS
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, over $300 billion in business will be conducted over the Internet during the first decade of the new millennium. Chances are good that you'll be one of those people making a purchase online soon, if you haven't already. Here are some tips to help ensure that your online shopping experience is a safe and satisfying one:
* Location, Location. If you're interested in trying a new online merchant who you're not familiar with, ask the company for its physical location (address and phone number) so that you can check on its reliability with outside organizations like your BBB and consumer agencies.
* Customer Satisfaction Policy. Determine the company's refund and return policies before you place an order. If online companies can't offer concrete commitments on how they will handle any potential problems you may have with their products or services, reconsider doing business with them.
* Protect Your Passwords. Never give out your Internet password. When creating a password, avoid using established numbers, such as your house number, birth date, or your telephone or Social Security numbers. If the site asks you to create an account with a password, never use the same password you use for other accounts or sites.
* Leave Nothing to Chance. Be sure you have a thorough understanding of everything involved before making an order. Be clear on the price and any shipping and handling charges. Know the terms of any product or service guarantees. Find out how long it will be before you receive your order. Federal law requires that goods and services be delivered within 30 days, unless a different delivery period is specifically stated by the merchant.
* Guard Your Personal Information. Only provide your credit card information or Social Security number online in a secure environment. Look for the prefix https:// . . . in the Uniform Resource Locator box which lists the website's web address to be sure that a site you are using is secure.
* Check For Reliability. Check a company out with your BBB. For the phone number or address of your nearest BBB. Also look for a reliability seal from a reputable online consumer protection program such as BBBOnLine (www.bbbonline.org).
* Keep a Paper Trail. Print out the "address" of the company site you are on - its Uniform Resource Locator (URL). The URL ensures that you are dealing with the right company. It's also a good idea to print out a copy of your order and confirmation number for your records.
* Pay by credit or charge card. Do not send cash under any circumstances. If you pay by credit or charge card online, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under this law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor is investigating. In the event your credit or charge card is used without your knowledge and permission, you generally are liable for no more than $50 in charges per card. Many companies do not hold consumers responsible for any unauthorized charges made online, and some card issuers may provide additional warranty, return, and/or purchase protection benefits. Be cautious if the seller asks you to pay by check or money order as you will have little recourse if the transaction goes awry. The Federal Trade Commission recommends in general that buyers not wire money either. If something goes wrong with the transaction, the buyer most likely will lose their payment.
* Know Your Consumer Rights. The same laws that protect you when you shop by phone or mail apply when you shop in cyberspace. Under the law, a company must ship your order within the time stated in its ads. If you decide to pay by credit card or charge card, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. If you are not comfortable entering your credit or charge card account number online, call it in to the company's 800 number or fax it.