Policing Internet Rip-offs are a Problem Demanding a Fix

f_10927037_1New Orleans    There are standard internet rip-offs, like the scams offering suckers millions being held just for you or my favorite recent one from the representative of the head of the International Monetary Fund.  There are the popular ones where a friend is stuck in Timbuktu and needs you to wire money somewhere so they can get home after supposedly being ripped off in that foreign land.  All of these are wild and personal.  A standard rule of using the internet has become not to open any email from someone unknown with an attachment.  More perniciously, there are the hustles offering thousands of dollars to the underemployed by working at home, which prey on desperation rather than greed that seem even worse to me.

I worry about all of these standard scams and their predatory impact as they con new users trying to crawl over the internet divide.  Spam scammers are hard to stop on the internet because nobody is in charge, meaning really that it’s all caveat emptor and we’re on our own.  So maybe that’s an acceptable tradeoff for some to have a free and open internet.  Let’s leave that argument for another day.  I think we can agree that there’s a different obligation for predators on sites that we need to trust and find reliable.

            Take our friends with craigslist.com which we all use regularly.  The free ad service regularly attracts fake applicants and job services, but that’s a fair trade for the good people who are found there.  But, recently the scams are becoming more expensive and dangerous.  For example cars and trailers advertised with attractive prices and multiple pictures that are really just trolling sites for suckers.  Having a 1998 Chevy Suburban with 150,000 miles I need to always keep looking, OK, and we need a trailer to put at the ACORN Farm and elsewhere, so there’s just cause there as well.   The other day I looked at a trailer with a fair price of $4200.  There was no phone so you had to email the advertiser which is not uncommon.  They replied asking if you wanted more information and pictures, and when you said, sure, suddenly it was someone supposedly in the military who needed $2000 lickety-split and would also supposedly drive the trailer from Maryland to anywhere if you were willing to pay them via E-Bay.  Yeah, right!  But, these deals will in fact catch people, because they are just honest enough to be credible unless you are naturally skeptical and suspicious, as some of us tend to be.

            You might say it’s still a good trade, but I’m not sure.

            Even priceline.com which is a commercial site a long way up from craigslist.com is not immune from the everyday rip-off in league with their partners.  Have you ever read the fine print on their site?  If you hit the wrong button and enter the date incorrectly, you’re ripped.  Their website, their customer support service, and their 800 numbers all repeat that if you make a mistake, you’re burned to a crisp with no relief.  Avis Rent-a-Car almost gloats in offering to double charge you, even though a lot of their business comes from Priceline.  Hertz to its credit will honor a change if they have the cars, but you have to be able to make the change on the Priceline website which won’t allow it, which I bet Hertz knows as well.

            Hidden charges, sucker punches, and direct thievery are all silent crimes on the internet, and I could go on for days with examples I’ve heard from our members over and over.  There was a report the other day that experts estimate that there are 40-60,000 fake and ripoff websites selling drugs without a prescription and this year so far the Federal Trade Commission has tried to take 4700 of them off-line, but hasn’t been able to make any progress with 4000.

If they can’t stop clear, open-and-shut illegality, what chance does the average Joe and Jane have of finding consumer justice on the internet, even as e-commerce becomes bigger by the minute all around the world?  When the only solution is writing a letter or sending a complaint via email to the new, embattled Federal Consumer Protection Bureau, you just know we’re up an internet creek without much of a paddle.  We need something better than this don’t we?