Better Business Bureau: From search engines and spammers to super glue and ATMS

First, I would like to thanks the Golden Crescent Area Agency on Aging and the Victoria Chamber of Commerce for hosting our recent classes on "Outsmarting Investment Fraud." We hope to have more presentations on this rather vital subject that is costing our communities thousands of dollars.

Most of our ventures onto the Web still begin with a search - a fact readily exploited by spammers and swindlers who rely on excessive use of keywords, link exchanging and other manipulation techniques to push their content higher in the list of search results, hoping you will click on them.

Though the major search engines discourage such deception, that hasn't stopped companies from engaging in such practices - and fooling users in the process. That is why, as a first step, you should look before you click. •  Don't assume that the top results are the most useful or even the safest. Look at the letters that follow the period at the end of a Web address. Top-level domains like .com and .info, as well as top-level country code domains like .fr (for France) are prime targets for spammers.

•  Many sites will also take advantage of Web address shorteners like Bitly to direct you to an unsavory source, so be cautious about clicking those truncated URLs as well.

•  Before making any purchase on a lesser-known site, take a look around. Do you see a listed address? If so, map it. Look for the email address. If your only contact option is a Gmail or Yahoo account, something may be awry.

•  Some species attract spam. Some searches are more enticing to spammers than others. Credit report queries are a top target. Remember, there are only three major national credit agencies. If you are using an outside party to check credit reports, do so carefully.

Super glue is the latest weapon of choice among ATM skimmers - thieves who put devices on ATMs to skim personal identification numbers when cards are used at ATMs. When users attempt to cancel a transaction, nothing happens, and the card is not released immediately.

The users leave discouraged, assuming the ATM kept the card. However, the machine automatically kicks the card back out after several minutes of inactivity, and the thief then absconds with the card.

While law enforcement and marketplace advocates have made considerable efforts to keep the worst in the travel club industry from flourishing, questions and complaints from consumers show that travel club schemes are thriving. Consumers are flocking to the Internet to find out if they've really won a free cruise or airline tickets as claimed by a telemarketer or in a mailing.

Several consumers report that they have paid between $7,000-8,000 for a travel club membership that provides little value over more prominent, free discount travel websites. To avoid the negative experiences of those consumers already taken by this scheme, the Better Business Bureau offers the following tips:•  Check bbb.org prior to attending a travel club presentation.

•  Be wary of offers that claim you've won a contest that you did not enter.

•  Be wary of solicitations that fail to disclose the name of the soliciting company.

•  Be wary of sales staff who use high-pressure sales tactics or tell you that the offer is only good that day.

•  Research your right to cancel prior to going to a sales presentation.

•  Only attend a presentation if you are actually interested in what the company is offering, not solely for the promise of a gift.

•  Be wary of companies that don't use letterhead in formal communication. This could be a sign of a fly-by-night distributor.

Alan Bligh is the executive director of the Better Business Bureau in Corpus Christi. Contact him by email at abligh@corpuschristi.bbb.org.