The FTC works to stem unfair and deceptive practices through both law enforcement and consumer education. Believing that the most effective consumer protection is education, the FTC tries to alert as many consumers as possible to the tell-tale signs of fraud. The agency's information dissemination program is vital to the mission of the agency. We work with a variety of "partners"--other federal agencies, state and local consumer protection agencies, trade associations, professional organizations, volunteer groups, corporations, Better Business Bureaus, the military, and extension agencies, for example--and a variety of media--newspapers, classified ads, public service announcements, bus placards, the Internet, brochures, bookmarks, and puzzles, to name a few.
Teasers and Tutorials
Too often consumers do not find consumer protection information until it's too late. Using "teaser" web sites, the FTC is trying to reach consumers before they make a purchase or invest their money. These "teaser" sites are Web pages, accessible by major search engines and indexing services, that mimic fraudulent sites. Internet shoppers looking for vacation deals, for example, may find an innocent-looking site that offers a money-saving, spectacular, luxury, dream vacation.(7) A lovely sunset emerges. Three clicks into the "come-on," the FTC seal appears. The site alerts consumers that they can get scammed, and gives tips on how to distinguish fraudulent pitches from legitimate ones. The site also links the consumer to the Commission's web site for additional information. The public has responded favorably to these sites, and virtually all consumers expressed their appreciation for the information.(8)
The FTC also has devised Internet tutorials in the form of interactive puzzles and games to reinforce what consumers have read on the FTC's web site or in their newspapers. For example, the Field of Schemes investment fraud sweep, (described on pages 6 - 10) included the launch of an online quiz called "Test Your Investment I.Q."(9) A series of typical telemarketing misrepresentations asks consumers to define the investment offering as "solid" or "risky." Similarly, the FTC, in connection with the Project Mousetrap sweep against fraudulent invention service promoters (described on page 8), created an activity designed to test the reader's "Patent-ability", which was a crossword puzzle containing critical terms from the world of patents and idea promotion.(10)
The Commission has actively sought Internet companies and trade groups as partners in educating consumers online. Many organizations are now circulating public service messages on their Internet sites cautioning consumers to avoid particular scams, and then "hot linking" them to the Commission's web site for more information.
Commission staff also partnered with the North American Security Administrators Association, Inc. (NASAA) to hold a real time online forum on the Internet in April 1997. Over 100 consumers participated in an electronic dialogue with state and federal experts about how to invest wisely in new business ventures or franchises. The Commission posted the transcript of this "chat" session on its web site so that other consumers could benefit from the exchange.
FTC's Web Site and the New Interagency Consumer Site
Since April 1995, the FTC has maintained a much-visited web site, www.ftc.gov, where consumers have availed themselves of a variety of information. The Commission receives approximately 92,000 hits a day on this site. In October 1997 alone, the FTC web site received more than 3 million hits. The site's ConsumerLine page, which accounts for about 30 percent of all the visitors, provides consumer alerts, online versions of all the Commission's consumer publications. The www.ftc.gov site was recognized many times in 1997 as a "best of the Web" for ease of use and quality of information.
Building on the success of its home page, the Commission solicited other agencies to create a new consumer site at www.consumer.gov. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are original partners in the development of the web site. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also have joined the "consortium." This site provides the public "one-stop shopping" for federal information on consumer issues ranging from auto recalls to drug safety to information resources for investors. Additionally, the site's ScamAlert! provides current information on fraudulent and deceptive practices in the marketplace. This feature appears on each page as necessary, and contains law-enforcement information and tips to avoid scams.