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On-line Fraud

Monica (no, not that Monica), the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Palestine on a pilgrimage and brought back the wooden cross on which Jesus had been crucified. This was several centuries after the fact.

At least that's the tradition. I can envision some shady character lurking around the Royal Guest House and saying, "Psst, lady. Want to buy the True Cross?"

Fraud has always been with us and always will be. What is new is that web sites, email and so on are wonderful tools to dupe people. The old letter fraud from Nigeria has been broadened by the use of e-mail. The California Department of Corporations has recently released a Top Ten list of frauds. They are out there.

What can you do? (Some of these hints apply only to the US and sometimes Canada. If you know of similar tools for other countries, please tell me and I'll be glad to post them.)

First of all, be sensible. Check out whomever you are dealing with. Most big e-commerce sites have joined TRUSTe, which audits and certifies them. I would join, too, but it is about $200 a year and I think my reputation is sufficient for most people.

If you are dealing with someone you don't know, even a seller at an auction, you should check him or her out. One thing you can do is ask them for an address and telephone number and verify it at

For auctions (and I imagine other transactions) you can use an escrow service that will hold your payment until everyone is satisfied. Two of them are and

You should never send cash to anyone. Use a credit card if you can (you canít with most person-to-person auctions), as they offer some protection.

As for buying (or selling) at an auction, the Federal Trade Commission's Online Auctions: Going, Going Gone offers handy tips. The Internet Fraud Watch's Online Auction Tips does as well.

If you have been fleeced from a Web site, in chat rooms, bulletin boards, newsgroups or via e-mail you should contact the National Fraud Information Center. Call 1-800-876-7060, complete an on-line form at or write NFIC, PO Box 65868, Washington DC 20035.

You must include the offending company's name, web site, email address, phone number, a description of the goods/services, what, how and when you paid, your name, address and phone number and a description of what happened.

DO NOT send your bank account or credit card numbers or original papers (send only photocopies).

The information is sent to the FTC's National Fraud Database and the National Association of Attorneys General. It is available to police and other law enforcement agencies in the US and Canada 24 hours a day.

Don't let this scare you off e-commerce. The percentage of fraud is quite low. You can get cheated though any medium. How many people have bought the Brooklyn Bridge or the Eiffel Tower before the birth of the Internet?


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