US Govt Watchdog Identifies Top Ten 'Dot Cons'

Scams on the Internet now have a name -- dot cons.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday listed the top ten type of Internet scams consumers complain about, dubbing them "dot cons", and warning that scam artists can be just a click away.

FTC officials also announced the latest results of "Operation Top Ten Dot Cons," a 10-month-long operation involving law enforcement officials from the U.S. and eight other countries, which targets the top ten dot cons. Legal actions were brought against 251 scammers as a result, FTC officials said at a news conference.

Internet auction fraud led the list of dot cons, with 45 percent of consumer complaints connected to auctions. In most cases, the fraud involved merchandise that was paid for but didn't arrive, or faulty merchandise that didn't meet expectations, FTC officials said. Internet access service fraud came second on the list with 21 percent, while nine percent of complaints dealt with Internet information and adult services.

One common complaint involved consumers who were automatically disconnected from their ISP (Internet service provider) when they downloaded software used to view entertainment, said Eileen Harrington, director for marketing practices at the FTC. The software then directed them to dial an international telephone number connecting them to a different ISP, which cost them up to US$7 per minute. "In many instances consumers who received the bills had no knowledge that anyone was using their computer this way," Harrington said.

Other cases involved software programs bypassing international call blocking and other protections installed on telephone services by concerned parents, she said.

Other scams on the top ten list were pay-per-call and telephone information services, Internet Web site design and promotion scams, bogus businesses opportunities, pyramid schemes, deceptive travel packages, investments and health care. Harrington said all these were connected to international parties as, in many cases con artists place their servers offshore or use foreign bank accounts.

"All of these are old-time scams, but they have had a boost with the capacity to go international," said Jodie Bernstein, director of consumer protection at the FTC.

Bernstein said the FTC is working with consumer protection and law enforcement agencies in other countries to build a coalition that spans the globe. The FTC this week is also hosting a meeting of the International Marketing Supervision Network (IMSN), a 29-country body, at which discussions about information sharing agreements and cross-border cooperation will be discussed.

FTC Commissioner Mozelle W. Thompson said the work of the IMSN, whose mission is to foster cross-border cooperation in consumer protection, has grown more important with the emergence of the global electronic marketplace.

"Entities around the world are recognizing the importance of cross-border cooperation for consumer protection," Mozelle said.

In addition to the U.S., the countries that brought actions this year against Internet scam artists in their jurisdictions are Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Australia, the U.K., New Zealand and Germany, Mozelle said.

The IMSN's meeting is focusing on how the organization can use the Internet to share complaints and ensure effective remedies are put in place in cross-border cases, Mozelle said. There are still impediments to cooperation, however. For example, while the U.S. has some level of cooperation with all 29 countries in the IMSN, so far only a few have signed formal cooperation agreements.

The U.K.'s representative at the IMSN meeting, Jonathan Rees, director of consumer affairs in the U.K.'s Department of Trade and Industry, announced at the news conference that the U.K. is the third country after Canada and Australia to sign such an agreement with the U.S. The memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and the U.K. is aimed at facilitating enhanced law enforcement cooperation in consumer protection.

"It's aim is really to help tackle those scams that originate in one country that hurt consumers both in the U.K. and the U.S.," Rees said.

Other countries have been slow to reach bilateral agreements on information sharing in consumer fraud cases because of data privacy concerns, and cultural considerations regarding sharing complaints and information from citizens of one country with officials of another, Harrington said.

"Those concerns are slowly being overcome," Harrington said. "As that happens more countries will participate."

The FTC, in Washington, D.C., can be found on the Web at http://www.ftc.gov/.

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