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HIGH-TECH LARCENY
WEB SITES, E-MAIL AND FAXES ARE THE LATEST TOOLS SCAMMERS USE TO GET YOUR MONEY

It's an old scam: letters promising the recipient easy access to millions of dollars, supposedly from a Nigerian government agency or oil company, if the recipient provides a bank account number or some business letterhead.

As far-fetched as the claims sound, they've found new life through e-mail and fax - and new potential victims, said Holly Anderson, a spokeswoman for the National Consumers League.

One woman had plane tickets to fly to Africa with her husband, believing she'd actually pick up the money there, but contacted the consumers group at the last minute. The organization managed to talk her out of going, Anderson said.

Swindlers will try to take people's money using old-fashioned tools, like letters or phone calls, but many are using Web sites, e-mail and fax machines to target large numbers of potential victims.

"You see new technology being used to perpetrate the same old scam," said Holly Cherico, a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The advice that consumer advocacy groups offer remains the same, too: If a proposition looks too good to be true, it probably is, and check out a deal as thoroughly as possible before parting with money.

Rip-off artists are using more sophisticated techniques, like official-looking faxes and sleek Web sites, to try to catch people off guard. While the Internet age has created some all-new scams, such as rip-offs involving on-line auction items, many old scams are resurfacing in different forms. Here are several to look out for:

Fake invoices: Like the Nigerian money scam, this is another rip-off that has migrated to e-mail and faxes. It works like this: A small business receives a message demanding payment for office supplies. Some businesses simply pay the bill, assuming another employee placed the order - even if no one ever did, Anderson said.

In some cases, the person pulling the scam actually sends office supplies first - unsolicited - then follows up with a bill charging an inflated price. Don't be fooled: The law says a company can treat such unordered shipments as a gift and isn't obligated to pay for them.

One way to fight that scam: Channel bill payments to one person or department in the company, to keep track of what's been ordered.

Expensive calls: This scam involves a fax machine, too, but in a more subtle way. A company receives a routine fax, requesting a list of prices for its products or services. An employee, eager to try to line up a new customer, dutifully dials the return fax or phone number, not noticing that the 809 area code connects to a country in the Caribbean. It's a costly long-distance call that the person behind the scheme partly profits from, Anderson said.

Companies should check out unfamiliar area codes before dialing them, if they want to avoid discovering expensive surprises in the phone bill.

Web "help": Con men have flocked to the Web, eager to take advantage of companies that aren't Internet savvy but want an electronic presence to boost their business.

Some schemers pledge to help a company design a Web page, then take an up-front fee and simply disappear.

Other scams are more involved. A company is promised a customized Web page under a free 30-day trial offer. The sites often turn out to contain basic information, listed on a page that's not linked to major search engines. At the end of the trial period, a schemer might simply start charging for the service without asking for authorization.

Like any business deal, check out the credentials of a company offering Web design expertise. And be alert to those free offers - ask for examples of what you can expect and if you're not interested in paying for the service, make that clear up front.

Internet business opportunities: These come in many forms, perhaps a simple e-mail or a professional-looking Web site promising easy riches or a can't-miss business opportunity.

Always research those enterprises before sending in money. Anyone can post a fancy Web site - it doesn't guarantee the business is legitimate.

Be especially leery of business opportunities being offered from outside the United States, and be skeptical of companies that are sketchy with details about themselves, Cherico said.

"If they don't want to give you the address of where they're physically located, that's a red flag," she said.

Cramming: Remember "slamming," in which customers' long-distance service is switched without their consent? Cramming involves unscrupulous vendors who sign up customers for services such as paging, Internet access and voice mail that they never ordered. Customers probably don't notice until they read their phone bill.

To stop cramming, check your phone bill carefully each month - not just occasionally. The charges often show up in small dollar amounts, so as not to attract attention. Alert the phone company to the problem if it arises.

Online auction fraud: The National Consumers League started tracking Internet fraud as a category four years ago. Since then, one complaint has consistently led the pack: problems with online auctions. The average loss per victim last year was $326, according to the group.

More than half of the people surveyed who sold items online reported having some kind of problem with the transaction, including never receiving payments (27 percent).

On the flip side, four in 10 buyers reported having some kind of problem with online auctions they participated in, including receiving items different from what they expected (11 percent) or never receiving what they ordered (10 percent).

Try to find out as much as possible about the person you're dealing with in the auction, experts say. Reading the online postings from other people isn't a foolproof system, but it can alert you to potential problems. Experts also say using escrow accounts or paying by credit card are the best ways to go.

Bob Kuykendall, project manager for Consumer Sentinel, suggests calling the person you're doing business with, even if it is long distance, to give yourself more confidence about the transaction.

Consumer Sentinel collects information from about 60 governmental and non-governmental sources. Its statistics show that rip-off artists have embraced technology.

Of the nearly 100,000 complaints it logged in 2000, almost a quarter of them involved identity theft, which can be pulled off in a number of ways. Internet services and computer problems ranked second in complaints, and Internet auctions were fourth, just behind prizes and sweepstakes.

Consumer advocates say that regardless of whether a business or individual actually gets taken by one of these scams, it's a good idea to report it to the authorities or to a business group, to help prevent others from falling into the same trap.

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