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Wednesday, April 7, 1999 Published at 19:23 GMT 20:23 UK

Business: Your Money

Fighting online fraud

Surfing the net comes with a World Wide Warning

The Internet is home to a burgeoning number of scams targeting consumers, investors and business owners.

Websites, e-mail, newsgroups and bulletin boards can all be sources of schemes promising riches or offering too-good-to-be-true bargains.

While much Net fraud is similar to conventional mail order or telephone scams, cyberspace has opened up a new market place that knows no borders.

Fraudsters have suddenly access to the consumers and investors of the whole world, to they try their old and new ideas on the unwitting.

The US leads the world in Internet use and, it follows, misuse as well. But Australia and Asia are also home to a disproportionate numbers of scam artists as recent investigations suggest.

The borderless nature of cyberspace means that the spillover effect to other countries like the UK is bound to follow quickly as local Net users increasingly do business directly with foreign sites and local operators import the latest scams.

20% fake rate

US company Cyveillance, which aims to protect legitimate businesses on the Net, believes that up to 20% of all upmarket goods sold over the Web are fakes. The company estimates that 20,000 to 25,000 of 150,000 websites it has researched are hawking phony goods using well-known brand names.

[ image: Investigators say it is near impossible to keep up]
Investigators say it is near impossible to keep up
Its president Chris Young said this includes "clothing, handbags, watches, hats and sunglasses - anything with a designer name people crave." Names like Gucci, Coach, Calvin Klein or Rolex.

The US based anti-fraud website estimates that last Christmas consumers were ripped off to the tune of about $20m (£12m) on Internet sales of the Furby, the latest fad computerised toy.

They paid up to 25 times the normal retail price, convinced they were getting something better than in the shops.

The UK's Office of Fair Trading has recently issued warnings about the large number of health scams finding their way onto the Internet. The fraudsters promise miracle cures such as slimming soaps and herbal cancer remedies.

UK credit card fraud

Card fraud in the UK is also rising sharply. The Association of Payment Clearing Services' latest report, published last month, shows an 11% jump to £135m in fraud involving remote transactions - those over the Internet, by mail order and phone - although the organisation does not yet distinguish how much of the fraud is due to Internet transactions.

Although all authorities agree the majority of Internet traders are genuine, paying upfront by credit card over the Net for goods and services unseen is the biggest source of Internet rip-off.

Despite the obvious dangers of sending payment to to unknown parties, the practice continues to catch Net surfers who are all too trusting or cannot resist the convenience of online shopping.

Impressive websites can often make bogus operators look like legitimate businesses when they are not. Consumers can also be duped into thinking a site is the official website for a well-known company or brand.

These 'copycat' sites are a major problem identified by the UK's Financial Services Authority (FSA).

Know your seller

This underlines the need to verify the physical location and registration of the business - don't send payment blindly to unknown sellers.

Measures you can take to avoid being conned include:

  • Make sure the company has a phone number and physical address.
  • Call the company back and check with your telephone carrier's directory assistance to see if the phone number actually belongs to that company.
  • For major purchases ask for references or testimonials and check them carefully.

The UK Office of Fair Trading says there is not yet a single authority for suspicious Internet shoppers to turn to for checking out a British online seller or for aggrieved consumers to lodge a complaint about poor one.

The Advertising Standards Authority and the Trading Standards Department of local councils appear to be the only relevant bodies for complaints.

A check at Companies House is needed to verify a British company registration.

E-mail overload

[ image: Beware your e-mail inbox]
Beware your e-mail inbox
Bulk e-mailing is one of the fastest growing methods used by fraudsters to entice consumers. It is cheap to send out thousands of e-mail messages and it only requires a small number of responses to be worthwhile.

On the positive side they are usually easy to spot and ignore. Look for those bold eye-catching subject lines.

The FSA is about to update its warnings about Internet bulletin boards where information is being freely and anonymously posted claiming to offer investors everything from high-interest deposits to get-rich-quick schemes.

Investment dangers

While retail scams can cost consumers hundreds of dollars or pounds, investment fraud has the potential to fleece investors of their life savings.

Fraudulent schemes promoted over the Internet involve selling shares, investment funds, pyramid schemes and foreign exchange services. They usually promise a fast track to wealth but you have to part with your money up front.

As with similar conventional retail schemes, the dangers are obvious.

All firms offering British-based investments or accepting deposits must be authorised and any prospectuses registered with UK authorities.

A phone call to the FSA's central register on UK number 0171 929 3652 can confirm whether a firm is authorised.

Dealing with an authorised provider ensures that if things go wrong, investors are protected by the Investors Compensation Scheme.

However, investing via firms based in another country makes it harder to follow up problems.

And the FSA warns that a website with an address including or just .uk does not ensure it is British based.

For a list of the most common types of scams doing the rounds of the Internet check out BBC News Online's Internet scam file.

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