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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Web Site Bells and Whistles May Not Sound an Alarm

February 11, 2001|LAURA BLY

"On the Internet," explains a computer savvy pooch in a now-classic New Yorker cartoon, "nobody knows you're a dog."

Or a 16-year-old travel agent.

Until recently, John Cushma's 3-month-old booking site, Flight Source.net, had the look and feel of a far more familiar competitor.

The home page was adorned with Expedia's trademark "Flight Price Matcher" and "Hotel Price Matcher" logos. Like Expedia, it listed selected air fares under a heading of "Today's Deals" and even posted seals of approval from the Council of Better Business Bureaus' BBB Online program and TRUSTe, a nonprofit organization that sets privacy standards for online companies.

Trouble was, FlightSource.net's young CEO, Pittsburgh-based Cushma, never bothered to clear his flight plan with Expedia, the Better Business Bureau or TRUSTe.

"People who aren't techies don't realize how easy it is for a Web site to simply lift logos. Is it ethical or legal? Absolutely not," says BBB Online's Holly Cherico.

Within hours of my conversation with Cushma, the Expedia icons and bogus seals of approval vanished from FlightSource.net.

Last year, the National Consumer League's Internet Fraud Watch project (http://www.fraud.org) ranked travel scams among its top 10 fraud categories, with many travel purchases included in the biggest complaint category, online auctions.

Travel ranks as the largest segment of e-commerce, with 20 million U.S. Internet consumers expected to spend more than $20 billion on travel sales this year, according to PhoCusWright, an online travel research firm. At the same time, the online travel industry isn't immune to the current crash-and-burn mentality. Dozens of ventures have faltered, failed or been acquired in the past year, including Savvio.com, which abandoned its "dynamic pricing model" in January after four months in business.

To avoid being scammed by existing travel sites--or left holding the mouse if a site bids farewell--here's some advice:

* Evaluate a Web site the same way you would a bricks and mortar company. Check for industry affiliations and seals of approval from consumer protection organizations such as BBB Online, but don't take the travel site's word for it: Clicking on the seal should link you directly to the organization's home page, where you can do a search to be sure the company is legitimate.

* Bypass sites that don't post a physical address and phone number, and be leery of grammatical mistakes, misspellings and static information that hasn't been updated for months--signs of an unprofessional operation.

* Avoid cash payments, and use a credit card, not a debit card. A credit card offers more protection if a purchase turns sour or if the site goes out of business before you take your trip.

* Look for clearly stated privacy and security policies that spell out how the site will encrypt your credit card information. To be sure your credit card number is safe, look for the image of a closed lock in the lower left-hand corner of the browser window, and check that the site's URL begins with "https" instead of "http."

* Steer clear of unsolicited e-mails. According to the National Consumers League, an increasingly popular scam involves e-mails that mimic those the airlines send with last-minute, Web-only fare specials. When customers call the numbers listed in the bogus e-mail, they reach the scam artists, not an airline agent.

*

Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month.

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