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INTERNET TRAVELER

Tracking down a website's home can be a tricky business

October 16, 2005|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Oh what a tangled web we

weave,

When first we practice to

deceive!

WHEN Sir Walter Scott wrote those words nearly two centuries ago, he could not have imagined how they could apply to something called the World Wide Web. The Web's complexity, global reach and de facto anonymity open the doors for anyone with imagination looking to make a buck.

There are more than 63 million registered domain names, and about 1.2 million e-commerce sites, according to Cyveillance, an Arlington, Va.-based company that monitors online risks such as fraud, identity theft and unlicensed product sales. Establishing a website takes only a credit card.

Because the cyber world is one without borders, knowing where a website is based can be important. Does it fall under the authority of the local district attorney, the state attorney general, the federal government? What about cases when the website is in a foreign country? Who has legal dominion?

Finding where website operators are based can be a challenge. Even though websites are required to be registered at Whois, www.networksolutions.com, there is no guarantee an address is correct.

"What do you mean by 'where' in cyberspace? That's a phrase without a lot of meaning," said Eric Olson, a vice president for Cyveillance.

Case in point: I set out in May to track down a website called Cheapestdeals.com, which a hotel manager in Colorado asked about.

"We recently had a guest who had reserved and paid for six rooms online through Cheapestdeals.com, and although we received her reservations, they never sent payment," said Alison Border, front office manager of the Warwick Denver Hotel. "After significant effort to contact the company, we all gave up."

Her complaint was similar to dozens I found against Cheapestdeals.com in searches of consumer complaint databases at the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission.

In a typical complaint filed with the BBB or FTC, consumers paid for rooms using their credit cards on www.cheapestdeals.com. (As of the Travel section's deadline Tuesday, that site was no longer live.) When they showed up at the hotel, it had their reservation but not their payment, the complaints said. When they or the hotel tried to resolve the matter by contacting Cheapestdeals, they were often unsuccessful.

"We're not even pursuing them anymore because they're a waste of our time," said Pat Wallace, president of the Golden Gate Better Business Bureau, a Bay Area office. His organization has received 133 complaints about the company in the last three years. Eighty-seven of those complaints have been unresolved or could not be pursued; the others have been addressed.

This is where "where" becomes an issue.

"We referred [Cheapestdeal.com] to the Contra Costa district attorney, but they aren't really there," said Wallace. "We found them in India," he said, which puts them out of reach of the BBB.

I started making phone calls. The customer service number on the website was disconnected. Finally, I reached Nightmaker reservations, one of the companies associated with Cheapestdeals.com. The two companies once shared an address in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

I spoke with a manager who identified himself as Subash Merkin. He said his company was "affiliated" with Cheapestdeals.com, but he said he had "no clue" about sharing the same address. He said the address was his office, "not just a mail drop."

The Pleasant Hill address, I discovered by going there, was a UPS store with a bank of mailboxes. A clerk there said that Nightmaker and Cheapestdeals.com had boxes there.

I contacted Zubash Sangam, director of SSHRS, the owner of Cheapestdeals.com. He said the person I had spoken to at Nightmaker was mistaken, and that Cheapestdeals.com was in fact based in India. He said the BBB report did not accurately reflect the company.

"We have been responding to each complaint forwarded by [the] BBB and taking care of the customer," Sangam said by e-mail from India. "Recently we implemented the inventory of a supplier that has not been reliable," he said. "As a result we have had complaints when reservations have gone through this consolidator."

The Federal Trade Commission has received more than two dozen complaints about Cheapestdeals.com but has not taken any action against it and will not comment on whether an investigation is ongoing. It does say that just because a company is based overseas does not mean it is beyond the reach of the law.

"It makes it perhaps a more challenging or complicated action, but not always," said Eileen Harrington, deputy director of consumer protection for the FTC, which works with consumer protection agencies in foreign countries, including India.

Contact James Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How to protect your vacation

Follow these tips in dealing with Internet travel sites:

* Always use a credit card. Debit cards, cash and checks lack consumer protections.

* Check the Better Business Bureau online (www.bbbonline.com) to see a company's history of consumer complaints.

* If a company is unfamiliar, check its "About Us" page. It should include a physical address and a working phone number. Check the Whois database, a registration site for websites (www.networksolutions.com, click on "WHOIS") to make sure the information is a match.

-- James Gilden

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