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By D. Ian Hopper
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) Getting stiffed at an Internet auction. An ``all expenses paid'' hotel that turns out not to be free. An offer for free adult material on the Web that secretly runs up a hefty phone bill.

The government cited these gimmicks Tuesday as it posted its first- ever top 10 list of Internet scams that Americans should avoid, and vowed to work with overseas law enforcement to crack down on Web con artists.

``The Internet has changed the way consumers gather information, shop and do business,'' Federal Trade Commission director of consumer protection Jodie Bernstein said. ``It's also changed the way law enforcers and consumer protection agencies do business.''

Several of the FTC's ``dot con'' scams are very old tricks reincarnated on the Internet. Miracle products, credit card theft and old-fashioned pyramid schemes are getting a new life online, officials said.

Worries about Internet thieves have slowed electronic commerce since its inception, but more consumers are gradually warming to the idea of Internet purchases. The FTC's new consumer protection effort is intended to keep criminals from undermining that trust, officials said.

The agency said the government has brought 251 lawsuits against online scammers in 2000. Officials described a handful of the cases on Tuesday to better educate Web consumers about the dangers.

For instance, the FTC has sued three individuals and their company, Computers By Us, in Thomasville, Pa., alleging they participated in online auctions without delivering the goods or offering a refund after getting paid.

The operators of the company did not respond to calls at their office for comment Tuesday.

The agency also alleged that a group of affiliated Arizona companies sent $3.50 ``rebate'' checks to consumers. When the checks were cashed, the consumers unwittingly agreed to allow the defendants to be their Internet service provider.

Monthly charges started appearing on phone bills and were difficult to remove, officials alleged.

The companies had no telephone listings, according to operator assistance.

RJB Telcom of Scottsdale, Ariz., was sued along with its principals for offering a free ``viewer'' or ``dialer'' program to access free adult material.

The government alleges that without consumers' knowledge, the program disconnected the user's computer from their Internet provider and made an international call -- typically to the Caribbean -- to another Internet provider. Consumers unwittingly racked up large long distance charges, the government alleged.

The company and its executives also are accused of billing credit card holders for services the consumers say were never used. The company did not have a phone listing, according to directory assistance, and did not immediately respond to an e-mail for comment Tuesday.

Officials also warned that scammers are targeting small business owners and stock traders. Some consumers have used day trading services that promise things such as ``huge returns'' in predicting the market but later find the claims inflated.

Titan Business Solutions, a California company, was sued after it advertised for medical billers that could work at home and earn up to $45,000 per year.

Customers who called Titan were asked to send more than $300 to the company in exchange for some software and motivational tapes which they couldn't return, the lawsuit alleges.

There was no phone or e-mail listing for the company.

In traditional computer crime, such as hacking, law enforcement efforts can be hobbled by international borders with differing jurisdictions and laws.

The FTC said it is trying to overcome those obstacles by creating a new international network of consumer protection agencies.

It said it is working with 240 agencies in the United States as well as officials in Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and Britain.

``We want dot con artists to know that consumer protection spans the globe physically and in cyberspace,'' Bernstein said.

On the Net: Federal Trade Commission Top 10 Dot Cons site:

. . . watch for more stories coming soon  


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