WASHINGTON – Professional hucksters and online snake oil salesmen best beware of the federal government, which is eyeing the Internet for scammers and spammers and has already started a series of crackdowns on con artists bilking millions from innocent consumers.
The Federal Trade Commission announced Tuesday that is has created a nationwide task force that has already brought 63 law enforcement actions against Web-based scams ranging from auction frauds to bogus cancer-curing sites.
"I think all of us have found something in our e-mail that is highly suspect," said Eileen Harrington, associate director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Affairs. "They may be subject to law enforcement."
The FTC is working with state attorneys general and administrators as well as four Canadian law enforcement agencies to restore "law and order on the Internet," said Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
"Cyberspace is a wondrous place, but we are quickly learning it can also be a dangerous place for the unwary," she said. "Con artists who once relied on telephone boiler rooms and mass mailings can now rip people off through Web sites and e-mail."
Responding from thousands of consumer complaints, Washington state is taking criminal action against a scheme in which customers who paid money for musical instruments were ripped off and abused when they complained; a "work at home" arrangement that was really a fraudulent pyramid scheme; and a Web site that took customers’ money in return for a so-called cancer cure.
In addition, the FTC, whose staff has surfed the Web, pored over consumer complaints and checked out the spam the agency gets in its own e-mail inboxes, has targeted Universal Direct, which allegedly promised participants $10,000 in cash gifts if they invested $5 in an e-mail chain letter. They are also going after Sound City 2000, Inc., which took money from customers over the Internet for compact discs and delivered them late or not at all with no refunds.
One of the alleged scammers the government is investigating is David L. Walker, who is said to have charged between $2,400 and $5,200 on his Web site for a cancer treatment hoax. The government charges Walker’s online boasts about his product were unsubstantiated and potentially harmful to cancer patients.
One victim Tuesday described the anguish Walker's Web site caused his family.
"As we read (Walker’s Web site), we had hope — up to this point there was no hope," said a visibly distraught Peter Faulton, a Washington resident whose wife had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. They had purchased Walker’s so-called treatment.
"There was no affect whatsoever," he said.
Harrington said the government will continue to crack down on such schemes, but also warned direct marketers that they aren’t going to stand for any kind of fraudulent spam or unwanted e-mail solicitations. They have trained 1,700 state, federal and international agents to monitor solicitations and what they’ve found so far isn’t encouraging, she said.
In a study of 215 e-mail solicitations that offered the "remove me" option for addressees to get off the mailing list, 135 of the links were dead or did not function. The FTC is now sending these solicitors threatening letters to tell them it means business.
"The FTC and its law enforcement partners are sending a signal to the scammer: We’re out there surfing the Net, reading our spam and working together to stop Internet scams," said J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.