What you can do to protect yourself against Internet con artists

By EW Staff
Updated November 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Like a lot of Websites, Net Opportunities (http://www.ari.net/NetOpportunities) sounds too good to be true—a site promising that, for a price, surefire techniques to becoming the next IPO wunderkind will be revealed to you. Yes, it’s a rip-off. But the people behind it aren’t fly-by-night shysters, they’re feds. In fact, this proxy site, which links to a stern warning about online fraud, is just one of many strategies the Federal Trade Commission is employing to educate the public about the dark side of e-commerce.

The FTC, which has been around for more than 70 years, has only recently begun pursuing the elusive underbelly of online scams. The first case came in 1994, when a site was investigated for offering bogus credit repair services. Since then, the FTC has developed a two-tier task force to scour the wires for shifty dealers. The best sources for information, says assistant director Paul Luehr, are surfers themselves: Every day, the commission receives e-mails, phone calls, and letters about online-shopping horror stories. To date, over 200,000 complaints have been registered in the Consumer Sentinel, a database used for national law enforcement.

Other leads come from the FTC’s own online surveillance team. The commission has assigned attorneys across the country to keep watch over specific areas of e-commerce, from auctions to automobile ads. To aid in their detective work, the commission has developed a state-of-the-art Internet lab in Washington, D.C., complete with the sweetest hardware and software that money can’t buy. One program even allows .gov surfers to cloak their identities, a necessary move given the number of sites that block visitors from the federal domain. ”We don’t want to give away the fact that we’re in a potential investigation,” Luehr says. ”So we need to have the capacity to search undercover in a way that replicates how average consumers surf the Net.” And it sure beats wearing a funny nose and glasses.

Though surfers can’t peruse the classified raw data within the Consumer Sentinel, they can search the site for court documents and press releases about current or past cases. Staying informed about developing scams is one of the best ways to protect yourself when shopping online. Here are some other tips from the FTC:

— Search the commission’s site (www.ftc.gov) for info about fraudulent dealers.

— Never disclose personal passwords or credit card numbers to an unknown party.

— Use a secure browser.

— Always pay with credit cards.

— When buying or selling on an auction site, take advantage of escrow services.

— Avoid vacation prize promotions, which seem to be proliferating online.

Most of all, Luehr suggests, take advantage of the medium. ”Too often people focus on the hazards,” he says. ”The Net offers enormous benefits to consumers as far as information.” And best of all, it’s free.