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November 29th, 2009:

Think Before You Click!

I have a stray hour this morning, and I’d like to work in some notes on a few deceptive online mechanisms of various species that came to my attention all at pretty much the same time.

The first of these is Fanbox, which is a spinoff from a site called a few years ago. I’m getting emails daily that claim to be from Facebook friends telling me that “Rodney Hornswoggle thinks you will really like this YouTube video. [Click here to] Check it out.” Even though I do know Rodney and he is on my friends list, a pitch like that smells to high heaven, and I’m not dumb enough to click on it. I researched it online and got a faceful. The emails were sent by something called Fanbox. Fanbox is a Facebook service that does various things, but, almost incredibly, it works by asking people for their email account and password, so that it can begin spamming everybody in the hapless users’ address books.

I boggle at the notion, but in fact this is not a new phenomenon. Fanbox’s corporate parent has done this sort of thing for years, to the huge annoyance of a great many people. As with other things of this sort, the full story is complex. Google on “ scam” or “fanbox scam” and you’ll begin to get the idea. The takeaway here is obvious: Don’t give your email account password to Facebook apps. Or anybody else, for that matter. Geez.

Next is Video Professor, which is (again) not a new idea: Selling tutorial DVDs via “negative-response billing.” This is illegal in Canada but not the US, and hearkens back to the “book of the month” clubs or “record of the month” clubs in years past, in which you agree to accept (and pay for) an item every month until such time as you cancel the membership. At least with those ancient systems you had some reasonable idea of what it would cost you. Details of how much you end up paying Video Professor for a number of tutorial DVDs ($290!) are obscure, and present only in some very, very small print. TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington wrote about it in the Washington Post , after which Video Professor tried to intimidate both Arrington and the Post with legal threats. It didn’t work, and the effort spawned a great deal of negative publicity for Video Professor. However, they’re still out there, selling DVDs using what I consider an extremely deceptive pitch. Stay well back.

Finally, while we’re talking stuff-hidden-way-down-in-the-fine-print, there are “online loyalty programs.” (More here.) The scam works like this: An online retailer takes your credit card information during an order, but just before the order is completed, you’re invited to join a loyalty program to receive coupons or discounts or something. The program costs $9-$12 per month, but (as always) that’s way down there in the fine print, which authorizes the online retailer to give your credit card information to the loyalty program operator, who then bills your card and kicks backs funds to the online retailer that originated the lead. As with rebates, most of the coupons and other “rewards” are never redeemed, so it’s basically a free monthly slurp out of a great many credit card accounts. Online merchants who use such systems should be avoided. Here are a few mentioned in the article: Priceline (you’re old, Jim!), Orbitz (how d’ya think they could afford that hovercraft?),, Fandango, 1-800-FLOWERS, Continental Airlines, and many others. (I printed out the full list included in the article as a guide to my personal boycott of anybody offering such programs.) And wow! Our old friend,, pocketed $70M through its partnerships with the loyalty progam operators.

Don’t be a victim. Think before you click. Read it all, especially on second or third-tier sites that you haven’t dealt with many times before. Check every line on your monthly credit card statements. Google for the name of the site and “scam” and see what others have said. Paranoia isn’t always a mental illness these days, especially online.