Internet fraudsters beware!

The more people shop online, the higher the risk of becoming a victim of Internet fraud Keystone

Customers need protection - but also a healthy scepticism - when shopping on the Internet, according to an international network currently chaired by Switzerland.

This content was published on March 24, 2002 - 12:13

The International Marketing Supervision Network (IMSN), which comprises 30 countries from Europe, North America and the Far East, met this week in Montreux to discuss how to protect consumers from problems like credit card fraud and websites that sell bogus products.

"The Internet is attractive to fraudsters because it allows them to target such a large proportion of the public," says Sitesh Bhojani, of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

"The fraudsters are not respecting boundaries, so that requires law enforcement agencies to cooperate more closely."

More sophisticated

The sad fact is that the more people shop online, the more often they run the risk of becoming the victims of Internet fraud. And the fraudsters are using more and more sophisticated methods.

In the early days of the Internet, the con men merely transferred existing kinds of fraud to a new medium - get-rich-quick schemes or spurious weight-loss programmes.

Now, they are increasingly using the technology to its full potential - by selling fake domain names, for example, or by "page-jacking" and "mouse-trapping", whereby surfers are taken to a pornographic or gambling website through deception after a legitimate address has been "hijacked".

"Consumers perhaps don't have enough confidence in the Internet, and that's largely to do with things like credit card fraud," says Guido Sutter of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, and currently chairman of the IMSN.

There is a recognition that countries have to work closely together to keep one step ahead of the criminals. The IMSN has introduced to major initiatives to tackle the problem: and sweep days.

On-line complaints, a website created a year ago, offers consumers an opportunity to register an on-line complaint if they believe they have been the victim of fraudulent practices on the web.

"It's a reaction - once you've already been cheated. But it has a preventive effect on websites," Sutter says.

"It may not result in immediate redress for the consumer, but the database we're building up gives us a profile of fraudulent activities," Bhojani adds. "In lodging complaints, they're contributing to the long-term welfare of other consumers."

In its year of activity, has received just over 1,000 complaints from 15 countries. Cooperation between national authorities has accelerated as the trends in cross-border Internet fraud emerge.

Clean sweep

This, in turn, has provided the ammunition for the IMSN to carry out its second major activity: the sweep days. Every year, consumer protection agencies from member states scour the Internet, targeting a particular field of activity. This year it was the turn of websites that promote health treatments using misleading and fraudulent claims or unethical methods.

The sweep netted 1,041 suspicious sites worldwide. They ranged from miracle cures for cancer and Aids to rapid weight-loss regimes and potions to improve sexual performance. A number of these sites have received e-mail warnings from law-enforcement agencies; others will be subject to further investigation and even legal action.

The message to consumers it that they should treat offers on the internet with as much scepticism as they would with any other medium.

"If something seems too good to be true, it probably is," says Mozelle Thompson, of the US Federal Trade Commission.

"You have to ask yourself the same questions as you would ask yourself if someone approached you in a shopping mall with a cure for obesity costing $25," he told swissinfo.

No hiding place

Thompson says the Internet is a consumer-driven tool and that customers should vote with their feet - or fingers - by using the many reliable, credible businesses on the web.

According to the Australians, who came up with the sweep initiative, some 25 per cent of sites voluntarily close down once the authorities warn them.

"The people behind the websites are made aware that the Internet is not a place where laws are not applicable," Guido Sutter says.

"We have to be as technologically savvy as the fraudsters," Thompson says, "They have to know that there's no hiding place."

by Roy Probert

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