Friday, 16 April 2010

The Consumer Detective

Like many people I’m a sucker for a good detective story but I know I wouldn’t have made a very good cop. Something to do with being a bit lazy and not wanting to get killed in the line of duty.

Nevertheless much of what we do at Consumer Watchdog is amateur detective work. We spend a lot of time researching internet scams, fake educational establishments and pyramid schemes. The difference is that our lives aren’t in danger when we do it. Well, not that often. I don’t believe it was anything to be frightened of but I’ve had one death threat but that was only from a ludicrous “traditional healer” who phoned me to complain about my allegation that his business was illegal. The funniest thing is that having claimed in his advertisement to have psychic powers, he phoned me to ask where I was so he could come and straighten me out. He wasn’t happy when I suggested that, as someone with supernatural powers, he should be able to locate me quite easily with his magical powers.

Then there were the threats of legal action defamation we’ve had. Correction. Non-legal threats. Over the years we’ve been threatened by a number of companies who’ve not welcomed our exposure of their deceptive contracts, their illegal advertising and their scandalous finance charges. Of course not one of them has ever had a real case against us because we’ve never defamed anyone. As a result it’s never actually cost us a single thebe in lawyer’s fees. All we’ve needed to do is laugh at their threats and they’ve gone away, never to bother us again.

Anyway, the detective theme is just an excuse to be generous. This week I’m giving away some of my secrets, some of the tricks we use to catch the scammers. None of them are particularly exotic but they can all go a long way to help YOU identify scammers and fraudsters for yourselves.

The first and perhaps most useful is Google. Google seems to be the solution to many of life’s problems these days. If you can wade through the vast quantity of nonsense on the web you can find an astonishing amount of information. The trick with Google is to search carefully. For instance if you just search for the words Consumer Watchdog you’ll find around 2.5 million hits. However if you search for “Consumer Watchdog” (including the quotes) and the word Botswana you’ll find around 2,000 hits, many more of which relate to us.

Here’s a better example. Some months ago we exposed a recruitment scam calling itself “Dalberto Sponsors”. They offer to find you high-paid jobs around the world but in fact will just steal your money. If you are suspicious about a company like this, do a Google search for “Dalberto Sponsors” (including the quotes) and the word “scam”. That way you’ll find the truth about them rather than the lies they spread themselves.

However that’s old news. Despite traditional Google being very useful it’s the new Google facilities that are really powerful. Google Earth and Google Maps have allowed us to discover that the seemingly realistic addresses given by a variety of scammers and fake colleges were made up. They’ve enabled us to prove that even when the addresses are real places, they can’t possibly be the locations of legitimate companies.

On their web site Dalberto Sponsors give their address in London as “Unit 115 Lockwood House Kennington Park Lane Oval London SE11 5TD”. Go to Google Maps and try and find this address exactly as it’s written and you’ll come up with a blank. Adjust it slightly to just "Lockwood House SE11 5TD UK” and you’ll be more successful. A couple of clicks later and you can even see a photo of Lockwood House. Far from being a business address, it’s a residential apartment complex.

Still on Dalberto Sponsors (they’re a very good example) here’s another example of how the internet can help. They publish a page of the names and photos of their management team but don’t you think it’s odd that not one of these people has a Facebook page? Facebook claims to have over 400 million active users, you’d think that at least one of the popular and successful people Dalberto Sponsors claim to employ would have a page, don’t you?

Incidentally it turned out that all the pictures were fake, stolen from other places on the web.
One even turned out to be the picture of a former mayor of Detroit who went to prison for corruption. The irony is overwhelming.

Wikipedia can be a good source of information although you need to be careful about how much trust you place in the information it holds. Wikipedia is true internet phenomenon: an online encyclopedia written entirely by people like you and me. Anyone can create or edit pages but you can often find this leads to slightly biased coverage of an issue. For instance if you read the Wikipedia page on the Catholic Church with an uncritical eye you’d think the Inquisition and child abuse were non-events.

Nevertheless it can be a source of background information on things like the pseudoscience behind claims made by so-called alternative health practitioners. If you read this article online we’ll post a number of other sources of real scientific information you can use when researching a claim made by peddlers of nonsense (Bad Science, James Randi Educational Foundation, Sense about Science, Skeptic's Dictionary).

Perhaps the key lesson is that despite the overwhelming amount of rubbish available on the internet, it’s the electronic equivalent of a condom. Use it to protect yourself.

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