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Buyer beware!

Part of covering security for the enterprise is tracking electronic fraud. In this case, SPAM, phishing, and pharming come to mind. These are definitely criminal activities but when it comes to similar nefarious activities on consumer-focused Internet sites, the lines are certainly foggy. This situation was recently reinforced with a personal experience.

I've been in the market for a big screen TV for a while and recently decided to move forward with this purchase. As a member of the technology industry and a geek at heart, I thought I would go ahead and shop for the best price on-line and do the whole purchase in cyberspace. Given my profession, I am especially sensitive to the large number of scammers and fraud so I decided to do some research before pulling the trigger.

What I found was the digital equivalent of snake oil, grifters and con artists wrapped in a veil of consumer services and fraud (note: I know that this conclusion will be obvious to many readers but given the number of people who respond to SPAM or get hooked into Phishing schemes, I know that there are still a lot of unsuspecting souls out there).

Here's how it all works. The Internet shopping aggregators act as middlemen by providing prices from numerous on-line retailers but they don't tell you anything specific about the plethora of hidden costs and scams. They also consolidate user comments so that on "average" the on-line retailers get favorable ratings. In truth, user comments contain lots of bad experiences and irate consumers but there always seem to be far more one-liner excellent reviews with text like "best price and great service," and 5-star ratings. On balance, these annonymous one-liners skew the average and give disreputable retailers a real reputation boost.

To complete the web of deception, some of the shopping aggregation sites pick a particular retailer and give it a seal of approval with no explanation. One of these aggregators labelled a particular retailer a "smart choice" even though it did not have the lowest price. When I dug into user comments, I couldn't fathom what was 'smart' about it. Users complained about shipments of the wrong product, open boxes, aggressive sales people trying to up-sell additional items, hidden shipping costs, and nonexistent customer service.

I know there are probably honest people trying to make a buck by selling electronics over the Internet but my research indicates an extremely high rate of scamming, fraud and real dirt bags. This web of deception is exacerbated by a number of immoral e-shopping sites that present themselves as a helpful on-line customer service but are obviously driven by making the quick buck. Finally, the search sites sell the e-shopping aggregators prime real estate ads on search pages so consumers tend to click on them first. In my book, all of these parties are accessories in obvious criminal activities.

I'm a technologist so the cool thing to me is how all this stuff works. It's a shame that when I actually decided to use this technological marvel, I discovered that it is dominated by the dark side of humanity.