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If It Sounds Too Good…You'd Better Check It on the Internet!

by Ken Conklin

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!" These are words to live by, whether you're considering a purchase on the Internet or at a local shop. Before buying anything it's a good idea to do some research first. Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau offer information on businesses, charities and potential scams. The key is to check out the company or individual with an organization like the BBB before signing a contract or handing over your hard-earned money.

More than a hundred years ago, P.T. Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute!" That adage is as true today as it was in Barnum's day. Millions of people get taken every year to the tune of several billions of dollars and there's really no excuse for this to happen. Even before the Internet, a company report was just a phone call away. Now consumer information is just a click away. The BBB site, for example, offers reports on businesses, charities and dispute resolution, and provides consumer guidelines and business publications. Additionally, links to local BBBs can be reached from the main site.

While the Internet is a wonderful tool, it can also be a breeding ground for unscrupulous operators. Scams are abundant and consumers need to know what they are dealing with. Work-at-home schemes are prevalent on the Internet. For example, my email address has been given out or, more likely, sold to people who now send me offers of "get rich, work at home" schemes. I've checked with the BBB on some of these just to see what they'd say. When the BBB gives an unsatisfactory report or advises me to be wary of email offers promising I can make thousands of dollars in a short period for doing very little, I pay attention -- not money.

If you're looking for lists of consumer-related sites, Consumer World lists more than 1800 consumer information sites accessible with a click of the button. For example, I wanted to check on a problem in Colorado so I looked in CW's index and found the Colorado Consumer Protection Agency. After spending a little time on the Colorado site I was able to get some information helpful to my problem. The CW site also maintains a list of other state and federal consumer agencies.

The federal government maintains an excellent source for obtaining consumer material. The Consumer Information Center is a government agency that gathers and distributes thousands of consumer pamphlets on everything from square-foot gardening to building an apartment house. Although many of these pamphlets are free, some are available at a nominal cost. Now that the CIC is on the Internet, however, much of this material is available for reading online. The CIC also has a Consumer Resource Handbook available, which presents valuable information to the buying public. Printed publications can be ordered from the Web site, by phone, or by mail. Ordering information is available on the site.

An organization that deals with all manner of consumer issues is the Commercial Union Consumers' Forum. The CU site discusses topics like health care, product safety, financial services, home repair, and many other issues. Consumers Union also publishes Consumer Reports Online, an Internet version of the popular magazine. Not only does the CR site offer the same services as its monthly magazine, but it also allows users to search up to 24 months of back issues.

Consumer Reports Online contains information about a variety of products that they have tested in their own labs. From their testing, CR rates similar products from different companies on how well they do what they're supposed to do. CR also publishes information about product recalls for safety or other reasons. A new feature on CR is Cybershopping, which discusses the pros and cons of online shopping. CR says that $5.8 billion will be spent this year on products on the Internet, with that number to double every 12 months afterward. This page offers some invaluable tips for anyone contemplating shopping online.

The National Consumers League is a consumer advocate group dating back to 1899, when it was formed to combat abuses of children and women in the garment industry. Today the NCL claims to fight for the rights of all consumers in and out of the workplace. One of their current issues is informing the public about what they call "the number-one scam on the Internet, online auctions." As with any number of opportunities to buy something by mail order or on the Internet, one must remember the old maxim, "Let the buyer beware." As the BBB advises, before giving out your credit card number to anyone, be it on the Internet, telephone, mail or in person, you'd better check out the company first.

In addition to general consumer information sites, many sites address specific categories. One that deals with education issues is the Education Consumers Clearinghouse , which is for parents, teachers and others who want information about public and private education. Internet users can ask questions and receive answers concerning their needs as education consumers.

For new and used car and truck buyers, the Internet offers several sites. One that I used recently to check on the price of a used Toyota Camry was Edmund's. Here I found the retail, wholesale and average trade-in price, as well as information on road tests, service histories and safety records. They also gave me advice on shopping for vehicles. Another site that provides such purchasing information is Auto-by-tel. Before spending big bucks in cyberspace though, it's advisable to carefully check out the company before making a purchase. I'd make sure I did some comparison shopping and research on foot before I'd buy a car on the Internet.

Most shopping on the Internet requires a credit card, but not all credit cards are alike. Many charge high interest rates plus an annual fee. Several Internet sites provide information about using credit cards. For example, Hot Card Services offers credit card consumer tips, discusses credit card fraud, talks about the interests of the financial institutions offering cards, describes the effects of rates and other charges on consumers, and offers tips to avoid getting into problems with your own credit cards. In light of the unbelievable number of bankruptcies due to excessive credit card debt, consumers need all the information they can get about using credit cards and smart cards wisely. To find out which companies have the lowest rates, go to Low-Rate Credit Cards.

For information on medical topics, check out American Medical Consumers. According to AMC, "Health care has become negotiated care. AMC helps Medical Consumers with the negotiations." AMC helps health care users become more informed consumers and helps guide consumers through the maze of bureaucracy when dealing with health care providers.

Have a legal problem? Try the National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services. The NRCCLS says its mission is to "encourage preventive law and improve access to the system for the average citizen." They offer a great deal of information for people wanting or needing to use our legal system.

While I have mentioned only a few of the many consumer sites available, I hope this will motivate consumers to check out a company, charity or other organization before buying. Always be wary of anyone offering too much for too little. As economist Milton Friedman said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch!"

Ken is a freelance writer and editor with a variety of experience. He was a technical writer/editor with IBM for 18 years, and a technical editor for CSC, Arinc, Rolm, and Infotech. He also has written feature articles for the Gazette Telegraph and Springs magazine in Colorado Springs, published short stories and poems in regional magazines, and has three novels in preparation.


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