Free trial offer! (Just pay forever)
How it works: You see an Internet offer for a free one-month trial of some amazing product—often a teeth whitener or a weight-loss program. All you pay is $5.95 for shipping and handling.
What’s really going on: Buried in fine print, often in a color that washes into the background, are terms that obligate you to pay $79 to $99 a month in fees, forever.
The big picture: “These guys are really shrewd,” says Christine Durst, an Internet fraud expert who has consulted for the FBI and the FTC. “They know that most people don’t read all the fine print before clicking on ‘I agree,’ and even people who glance at it just look for numbers. So the companies spell out the numbers, with no dollar signs; anything that has to do with money or a time frame gets washed into the text.” That’s exactly what you’ll see in the terms for Xtreme Cleanse, a weight-loss pill that ends up costing “seventy-nine dollars ninety-five cents plus five dollars and ninety-five cents shipping and handling” every month once the 14-day free trial period ends or until you cancel.
Avoidance maneuver: Read the fine print on offers, and don’t believe every testimonial. Check TinEye.com, a search engine that scours the Web for identical photos. If that woman with perfect teeth shows up everywhere promoting different products, you can be fairly certain her “testimonial” is bogus. Reputable companies will allow you to cancel, but if you can’t get out of a “contract,” cancel your card immediately, then negotiate a refund; if that doesn’t work, appeal to your credit card company.
Don’t worry: there are plenty of free things available on the Internet, scam-free. Here’s our guide.
The hot spot imposter (He’s close, real close)
How it works: You’re sitting in an airport or a coffee shop and you log into the local Wi-Fi zone. It could be free, or it could resemble a pay service like Boingo Wireless. You get connected, and everything seems fine.
What’s really going on: The site only looks legitimate. It’s actually run by a nearby criminal from a laptop. If it’s a “free” site, the crook is mining your computer for banking, credit card, and other password information. If it’s a fake pay site, he gets your purchase payment, then sells your card number to other crooks.
The big picture: Fake Wi-Fi hot spots are cropping up everywhere, and it can be difficult to tell them from the real thing. “It’s lucrative and easy to do,” says Brian Yoder, vice president of engineering at CyberDefender, a manufacturer of antivirus software. “Criminals duplicate the legitimate Web page of a Wi-Fi provider like Verizon or AT&T and tweak it so it sends your information to their laptop.”
Avoidance maneuver: Make sure you’re not set up to automatically connect to nonpreferred networks. (For PCs, go to the Network and Sharing Center in the Control Panel. Click on the link for the Wi-Fi network you’re currently using. A box with a “General” tab should pop up. Click “Wireless Properties.” Then, uncheck the box next to “Connect automatically when this network is in range,” and click OK to enable. For Macs, click on the Wifi button in the upper right, click “Open Network Preferences,” and check “Ask to join new networks.”) Before traveling, buy a $20 Visa or MasterCard gift card to purchase airport Wi-Fi access (enough for two days) so you won’t broadcast your credit or debit card information. Or set up an advance account with providers at airports you’ll be visiting. This map lists Wi-Fi services at all U.S. airports. And don’t do any banking or Internet shopping from public hot spots unless you’re certain the network is secure. (Look for https in the URL, or check the lower right-hand corner of your browser for a small padlock icon.) Learn more about how to disable automatic Wi-Fi connections.