Scanning for Scammers Before You Buy In
No would-be entrepreneur should ever fall prey to a scam artist again, says Christine Durst, co-founder and chief executive officer of Staffcentrix, a training and development company that designs and delivers home-based career training programs to the U.S. State Dept. and the U.S. Armed Forces. Using free Internet tools and some common sense, she and her staff have developed detailed techniques for ferreting out fraudulent business opportunities. She shared some of her secrets recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Your company does training and development. How did you develop expertise in investigating fraudulent business opportunities?
We help people find legitimate work-at-home employment or home-based entrepreneurial opportunities. We've trained or mentored more than 4,500 entrepreneurs in 65-plus countries around the world as part of our work for the government. When you're sending job leads to the State Dept., you do not want to inadvertently send scams. So we developed a kind of sixth sense about what opportunities are legitimate and which are not, both in terms of home-based employment and work-at-home business leads.
What are some typical hallmarks of scams?
Fraudulent pitches are usually frantic and give you some sense of urgency. They'll say there are only 10 more business opportunities available. They'll tell you that you need to send an e-mail or make a phone call right away or else. They include promises of huge compensation for very little work. There's very little detail about how much you'll have to work, how much you're going to make, and what exactly you're going to do. They'll all tell you that no experience is necessary.
Are there more scams now than there used to be, or about the same?
With work-at-home opportunities, we reported a 30-to-1 scam ratio three years ago. Now, it's gone up to 48-to-1. Another thing we're seeing more and more is these scammers billing themselves as "Christian companies." Of course, they're playing to a bias right there, making the assumption that people will be put at ease because they think they can trust Christians and therefore the company must be on the up and up.
Can you walk through the steps you take when you're investigating an Internet business opportunity?
Sure. One point to make is that we use free online tools that can be used by any entrepreneur to investigate companies they might be considering doing business with, purchasing from, investing in, or partnering with. We also use tools that can help business owners determine whether their Web site content is being pirated and used elsewhere.
We first look at the Web site. Oftentimes they are fairly professional looking—some are obviously fraudulent, fly-by-night sites, but not all of them. They may have graphics, drop-down menus, a company mission statement, even pictures of an executive team. The first thing we do is try their telephone number. The first red flag we get is if the number is out of service.
Obviously a company currently in business is going to have a working telephone.
Exactly, so if they don't, that's immediately suspicious. Next, we investigate how long the site has been online. For this, we visit Whois Source, and enter the business' Web site URL in the search box.
When that search comes back, there's a "registry data" section that shows you when the domain was registered. Another red flag for us is if we see that the site was registered and built quite recently. Scammers often build in a hurry, work quickly to find victims, then disappear as quickly as they came. Another common practice among scammers is that they do not indicate who the domain owner is, listing instead "PrivateRegContact." Many legitimate businesses also "register by proxy" to avoid spammers, but it is worth noting.
So in just a few moments, you've already been able to determine a lot.
But we can get even more. If we're concerned that the company seems to have popped up rather quickly, we can check to see if they'd been online previously but had accidentally let their domain registration expire. We can go to Archive.org, and use the Wayback Machine. We enter the company URL again and click on "take me back." If the company has a history online, you'll get an archived snapshot of its site going as far back as 1996. If there's no recorded history for the site, there's a good chance the site was set up as a front for scammers.
How do these fraudulent outfits put up sites that look so good and include legitimate-sounding business language and photos and so forth?
Often when scammers set up sites in a hurry, they manage to incorporate professional-looking copy by plagiarizing text from other sites. One of our favorite tools for finding out whether the text, or any portion thereof, on any given Web page is duplicated from another site is Copyscape. Since scammers don't typically have a business vision or mission that they care to share, those pages are very likely pirated from another unknowing company. So, we enter the URL from the company's "vision" page into the Copyscape search.
What it turns up are links to Web sites that have duplicate text. You can usually figure out where the copy came from and you can see all the other sites where the scammers are using identical text or very close variations on it. Many times, some of those other sites will have been disabled, which is not unusual as scammers often close up one site when people start to catch on, only to open another identical site immediately.
So you find out that they've stolen legitimate companies' mission statements, FAQs, and client testimonials?
Yes. They often pirate text from several different firms, and even steal the pictures they use on their site as well. You can tell that by doing a right mouse-click on the picture and you'll get some underlying text that pops up to give you the properties of the picture. Then you can see if the names that come up match the names listed on the scam site. If the scammers are lying about who's behind their company, it becomes apparent quickly.
That's amazing. And I'd imagine entrepreneurs could use these same tools to find out if any scammers are pirating text or pictures from their Web sites.
Exactly. Copy the URLs of some of your text pages into Copyscape and check out if anyone else is using your writing to bolster their fraudulent efforts. Entrepreneurs can also use forums like Scam.com, where people who are investigating opportunities interact. You can search on a company name there and get some background about it, or you can post an inquiry about a business opportunity you're exploring, and chances are someone will respond if they have had a bad experience with that company. Other message boards we visit are workplacelikehome.com, ripoffreport.com, and wahm.com.
Do you find these kinds of grassroots communities are as effective as some of the traditional government agencies that are supposed to protect the public against scams?
Actually, I think the people who are down in the trenches do a better job in terms of being informative about these frauds. Of course, any time you're looking at these boards, you have to weigh and measure what people say. Sometimes there are great business opportunities that aren't executed properly. Not everybody is cut out to be an entrepreneur.
If you get 10 responses, throw out the high one and the low one and go with what the majority has to say. If it's an even mix, err on the side of caution and don't risk your money on it.