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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal and state fraud fighters are cracking down on Internet auction scams that fleeced thousands of consumers out of money and merchandise.
The Federal Trade Commission announced Wednesday it is joining 33 state and local law enforcement agencies to target auction con artists with 57 actions ranging from prosecutions to warning letters.
"Real world law enforcement will not let you get away with virtual fraud," Howard Beales, chief of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said at a news conference. He said the enforcement actions include 17 criminal cases.
Auction fraud was the No. 1 Internet-related complaint recorded by the FTC last year.
Many of the cases included in the FTC's "Operation Bidder Beware" involve scams where consumers win an online auction and pay but never receive any merchandise.
One man allegedly added a twist by stealing identities to cover his tracks when he failed to deliver to winning bidders, the FTC said. The man, who was not identified by the FTC, allegedly opened bank accounts and post office boxes using identities from the records of a suburban Chicago hotel and the names of people he didn't like.
"Consumers and law enforcers believed the identity theft victims were the ones who had bilked the consumers out of their money," the FTC said. A federal court in Chicago ordered a halt to the scam and froze the man's assets so they can used to repay victims, the FTC said.
In another case, scam operators set up an online escrow service called Premier Escrow that was supposed to prevent fraud by holding auction payments until winning bidders could receive and inspect merchandise they had won, the FTC said. The scammers allegedly acted as both buyers and sellers and directed transactions to the fraudulent escrow service so they could steal consumer payments for items including computers and a car.
The FTC said a federal court in Virginia has ordered a halt to that scam, dismantled the scammers' Web site and frozen the defendants' assets pending trial.
Many of the scams occur on eBay because of the large volume of auctions there, said Eileen Harrington, the FTC's director of marketing practices. She said eBay has been very cooperative working with law enforcement to combat auction fraud.
The FTC and the regional agencies are launching a campaign to educate people about Internet auction fraud. They said consumers should:
--Save all transaction information.
--Be familiar with an auction site's protections for buyers, and don't assume that all auction sites have the same rules.
--Learn about a seller before bidding on an item, and avoid doing business with sellers who can't be identified or try to move a transaction off an auction site with promises of a better deal.
--Investigate unfamiliar escrow or online payment services to make sure they are legitimate.
--Never give out Social Security, driver's license, credit card or bank account numbers unless the seller and payment service has been verified as legitimate.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)