A Lesson in How To Check Out Businesses and Identify Internet Scams
This blog post was written as a follow-up to my post on the widely-advertised teeth-whitening scam.
The following techniques may not enable you to sniff out every possible kind of scam — you’d need a much more sensitive “scam-meter” to sniff out the typical investment fraud, for example — but in many cases, especially those similar to the one mentioned, these checks can be really useful.
And any legitimate business should pass the first four tests. If it passes all five, that’s even better.
1) Read the fine print.
If you will just read the fine print of an offer, you can often avoid getting ripped off. This doesn’t work in all cases, but it would’ve worked in this one.
And remember: If it sounds just too darn good to be true… it probably is “too darn good to be true.”
2) Try to find out who you’re really dealing with by doing a WHOIS search.
A WHOIS search is designed to tell you exactly who’s behind a particular domain name.
There are a lot of places you can do a WHOIS search to find out information on what individual or business has registered a particular domain name (like myteethtrick.com, one of the scam sites mentioned in my previous post). Godaddy is perhaps the single best source for this.
To search, go to www.godaddy.com, and click on “WHOIS search,” listed under the Resources column towards the bottom of the page.
To find information on the domain “myteethtrick.com,” for example, you would then enter “myteethtrick” into the main box, make sure “.com” is selected from the drop-down box to the right, and click “GO.”
In this case, the “Registrant Contact” shows up as “WhoisGuard,” immediately followed by “WhoisGuard Protected ().”
“WhoisGuard” means that the registrant is using a privacy-protection service in order to avoid making public their real name, address, and phone number.
That’s generally a really bad sign! If a company won’t reveal their true name, address and phone number, they are usually (not always, but most of the time) people you don’t want to do business with.
“WhoisGuard” isn’t the only “private registration,” identity-hiding service. “Domains By Proxy” is probably the most common one. And there are others, such as “Moniker Privacy Services.”
The important thing here is: this company’s real contact information is being hidden from public view.
In fact, ALL SEVEN of the domains I mentioned in the previous post as being associated with this scam have the owners’ identity hidden from public view.
Compare this with a WHOIS on springfieldcomputerguy.com, which gives you my full name (well, my last name and first initial, at least), my address, and my phone number. It also tells you that I registered the domain in August of 2003 – more than 6 years ago.
3) Search online to verify their reputation.
This may or may not work that well for businesses that constantly change their name. In this particular case, because these scammers have regularly changed their business names, you get better results by searching for “mom teeth whitening scam” than you do by searching for the names of the web sites or business entities involved.
In fact, for a lot of things people purchase over the internet, this is a good model: do a google search on the name of the company or the product, along with the word “scam,” and see what you turn up. In fact, if you want to go hands-on, try searching right now using the phrases “google work at home scam” and “acai berry scam.”
It’s important to know that this is not an entirely foolproof technique. Many of the more sophisticated scammers will “head off” this technique by filling up the internet with web pages that “investigate” their product or service and proclaim that it’s “not a scam.” So if you see pages proclaiming that a particular product IS a scam or if you see a bunch of pages trumpeting specifically that it has been “investigated” and is “NOT a scam,” be suspicious.
In fact, one previous internet scam that I tried to warn a few people about made a point of proclaiming that they were a legitimate business, “as opposed to” the many scammers that put forth other online financial schemes. Supposedly, this company was going to “drive the scammers out of business.” (These same people promised to pay you 411% annual interest on money that you “loaned” to them. Sound too good to be true, anyone?)
Now let’s examine my own business’ reputation, as seen online.
If you search hard enough, you may be able to find that in the history of my business, we have a public online record of one single (unfortunate) Better Business Bureau complaint against us.
We wouldn’t have that, actually, if I’d agreed to give in to the cash demands of someone who didn’t have a legitimate complaint against us in the first place and who made some false allegations in an attempt to get us to pay him money. While we will go to great lengths to satisfy any legitimate grievance (and did offer to “go the extra mile” even in this case), I didn’t agree to being taken advantage of.
The BBB gives our business an “A-” rating, which (interestingly enough) has nothing to do with this single complaint. They agree that we’re in good standing on that. But according to the local BBB representative, they don’t give any business an outright “A” until they have been in business for at least 10 years. Ten years!! So we have another few years to go to get our “A” from the BBB. Personally, I strongly disagree with that policy, as it implies to the public that there’s something “wrong” or inferior with any and every business (including mine) that opened less than 10 years ago. But there’s not really anything I can do about it.
No business is 100% immune from negative feedback. But that negative feedback should be low in relation to the number of customer transactions. If I’m buying something off of ebay, I prefer to deal with sellers who have around a 99% or better positive feedback rating. Sometimes I’ll go a bit lower than that, but rarely will I go below 98%.
This percentage varies a bit in other places. At Amazon Marketplace, I sometimes buy from sellers with positive feedback in the 80s, as Amazon’s feedback system seems a lot tougher than eBay’s. The GEICO auto insurance company boasts about a “97% customer satisfaction rate” on their radio ads, and I can’t imagine switching from them to someone else.
In general, the percentage (and if possible, the number) of bad experiences reported should be low.
Compare these kinds of figures with the more than 1,700 complaint comments (!!!) recorded at one consumer complaints web site alone (ComplaintsBoard.com), against the teeth-whitening scammers mentioned in my previous post.
4) Check to see if they’re a legitimately registered business.
You can often do this by searching with the state they’re in (assuming you can determine their location). For example, to search for my business, you can first locate the Missouri Secretary of State’s web site by searching for “missouri business entity search,” and then search from there.
But note carefully what web address you get. There are imitation, non-government sites — and when I tried this I quickly ended up at one of them (www.secstates.com). If you’re at the right place, the web site will usually have a .gov web address. Or at least it will state clearly that it’s the official site of the Secretary of State for the US State involved.
In Missouri, the correct web site is www.sos.mo.gov.
If you do a search on my business name (Springfield Computer Guy), you will find that I’ve filed the proper paperwork with the State, which (once again) leads you back to my real name and address. You can also see that I’ve been officially and legally using “Springfield Computer Guy” as my business name since the spring of 2004.
5) See what the business’ web site looked like a few years ago.
www.archive.org tries to maintain an archive of what web sites used to look like. This isn’t foolproof, as they may not have a record of all legitimate sites. However, if they do have a record, and the site has presented pretty much the same kind of face to the public for years, that’s a good indication that the business isn’t changing its tune every few months. And it can help confirm for you how long they’ve been presenting a particular offer or other information to the public.
If you search their “Wayback Machine” for www.smilewhitespro.com or www.white-smiles.com, the “free trial” sites mentioned earlier, you get:
“0 pages found…”
“Sorry, no matches.”
Another bad sign. Any one of the first four could be reason enough not to deal with a company, but the teeth-whitening scammers have by this point failed all five of these tests!
On the other hand, if you search for www.springfieldcomputerguy.com, you’ll find archives of my web site going back to 2004. And if you click on any of those, you can see a lot of the information I had on my web site years ago.
I guess since I have a lot of the same content I had 5 years ago, that’s what you’d call “stability.” Either that, or I really need to update the site!
But then, that’s what I’m doing with these blog posts. 🙂