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AVOIDING ONLINE SCAMS

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Ad Helps Reveal Possible Scam

User of classifieds alerted after request to wire money

Harold Kosten doesn't mind Goldilocks or even the three bears sleeping in his bed. It's better than losing it to a scam artist.

That's the feeling Kosten got when he received an offer on the high-end bedroom set he was advertising for $1,600 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

He was contacted by an MCI Worldcom operator who said a hearing-impaired person was interested in buying the furniture and wanted him to e-mail more information along with pictures.

Koster received an e-mail response saying the buyer would send a certified check for the asking price plus an overdraft to cover delivery expenses.

Kosten was told to forward the amount of the overdraft via Western Union to the office of the company that would handle the shipment. He was asked for his name, address, home and cell phone numbers and a statement of offer acceptance.

"This was when I recognized this as a (textbook) scam and did not send the information," Kosten said. "Scams are scams. I know they're out there. The way this started out with the MCI operator and an impaired person on the line, now they've got your heartstrings."

Kosten said he tried to report the incident to MCI but couldn't get through to anybody.

He wrote to the Federal Trade Commission, which answered with a letter stating that the agency is working with law enforcement authorities and Web site operators to fight Internet auction fraud.

"Unfortunately, in cyberspace it is difficult for consumers to distinguish a legitimate seller from a fraud artist," the FTC wrote. "Typically, buyers using Internet auctions never meet the sellers offering the goods and have no means of verifying the existence or quality of the goods being offered for sale. As a result, as the use of Internet auctions has grown, reports of Internet auction fraud have also grown."

Craigslist, a popular Internet classified advertising site, issues the following warnings to avoid scams and fraud:

* Deal locally with folks you can meet in person; follow this one simple rule and you will avoid 99 percent of scam attempts.

* Never wire money via Western Union, Moneygram or any other wire service; anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer.

* Fake cashier's checks and money orders are common; banks will cash them and then hold you responsible when the fake is discovered weeks later.

* Never give out financial information (bank account number, Social Security number, eBay and PayPal accounts).

* Avoid deals involving shipping or escrow services and know that only a scammer will "guarantee" your transaction.

Kosten said he assumed at the time that he was dealing with a local resident who, in fact, may have been hearing-impaired. But the purpose of the MCI call, he believes, was to get him to reveal his e-mail address.

There was no discussion about the two pictures of the bedroom set he had e-mailed, just an offer for the asking price, Koster said.

"I'm not critical of classifieds. I think it's the right way to advertise," he said. "People just need to be aware of these scams, particularly these impaired-person calls."

Rebecca Bradner, director of classified advertising at the Review-Journal, said she's seen these types of scams for more than 30 years that she's been in the business.

"This is not new. It happens all the time," she said. "The only thing is the MCI call. They could have been hearing-impaired or maybe they were not.

"Classified ads have always been and continue to be a safe and effective way to buy and sell merchandise locally," Bradner said. "The benefit is that the transaction can be done in person, ensuring that there are no hidden motivations. As with any transaction, buyers and sellers should use their good instincts. If something seems too good to be true, it generally is."

The FTC suggests that consumers who have experienced Internet auction fraud file complaints at www.ftc.gov and with local law enforcement in the area. Consumer complaints are crucial to putting a stop to fraud, the agency said in its letter.

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How to Avoid Online Scams

Tips for Avoiding and Surviving 'Phishing' Scams

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Online scammers often use phony alert messages to hoodwink consumers into disclosing personal information that can later be used for identity theft, a scheme industry insiders call 'phishing.'

Phishing scams often take the guise of "urgent" emails or pop-ups from a familiar business organization -- such as a bank, internet provider or credit card company -- urging an immediate "validation" or "update" of personal information. The alert often warns of dire consequences if these steps are not taken, such as a voided credit card or internet account.

To avoid getting 'phished,' experts recommend the following:

Be Suspicious: Be wary of any email or pop-up asking for personal information, particularly an account number, username and password. It makes little sense that a bank or other financial institution could contact you without having your basic account information.

Don't Respond Immediately: Cons use provocative statements, such as the promise of a prize or the threat of an account termination, to get you to think less and react more. Chances are, the more extreme the message, the less likely it's authentic.

Get More Information: Contact the company directly -- preferably by phone -- to determine if a message is genuine. Credit card accountholders should call the toll-free number on the back of their cards, and bank customers should use the telephone number on their bank statements.

Don't Trust a Logo: Scammers often use the logos of legitimate companies to dupe consumers into thinking the message is from an official source. If an email sounds fishy, don't drop your suspicions just because the seal looks authentic.

If You Think a Message Is a Scam: Leave it alone. Don't click on any of the links out of curiosity since they may contain viruses. For preventative purposes, send copies of the email to the Federal Trade Commission at uce@ftc.gov.

If You Think You've Been Conned: File a complaint, and then visit the FTC's Identity Theft website to learn of the legal steps you may wish to take. Also order credit card and bank statements to monitor if any fraud has been committed.

Consult the following resources for more information on how to avoid, halt, and report phishing scams:

The Anti-Phishing Working Group

The Anti-Phishing Working Group is a global pan-industrial and law enforcement association focused on eliminating phishing and other types of internet fraud.

FTC Consumer Report: How Not to get 'Hooked' by a Phishing Scam

Department of Justice Special Report on 'Phishing'

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