Shrewd shenanigans snag e-shoppers in Twilight Zone

As network and system architects and product designers, we deal with a world of black and white. We deploy technology to optimize and enhance legitimate business transactions and we fight a never-ending battle against those anonymous malicious miscreants who pound our network walls with a stream of spam, viruses and malware. But a recent experience has me thinking there is also a significant grey area between the two — a Twilight Zone (for those old enough to remember), where things are not as they seem.

In short, these are e-commerce sites that are, in the strictest sense, legitimate, but in many cases use technology to trap unwary buyers into ending up with a “deal” that wasn’t what they bargained for. It’s a high-tech version of the age-old “bait and switch” ploy, often using the latest high-tech methods to accomplish it.

It starts with a Google search. Key in the model number of that new camera you’re thinking of purchasing and a gaggle of Google-paying purveyors jump out at you. Some quick probing on price shows you a range of $1,999 down to $1,059 for what appears to be the same “factory-sealed” item. A click to the vendor brings us to a very respectable-looking home page replete with good signals, like a “Hacker Safe — tested daily” logo and customer testimonials from “Terry S.” in Atlanta and “Johnny G.” in Austin, happy customers just like we might become. Nikon, Sony, Canon, Panasonic: all you could ask for.

The technological facade continues through the ordering process. It reminds us that when presented with a standard ordering form, we really have no inkling of what kind of system drives it and what is behind it. The site requests an e-mail address for notifications, but none is forthcoming. Not a major flag, but unusual nonetheless. So far, so good. The effective use of the high-tech tools we spend our working lives perfecting has garnered this site a sale and, it is hoped, the customer a good deal — e-commerce reshaping the world.

Then, the Twilight Zone. Having paid a premium for overnight delivery, it’s noteworthy that close to 24 hours later nothing has been heard from the site. An e-mail to “Info” goes unanswered. The 800-number says if you’re calling about the status of your order, dial a different (non-800) number which, naturally, is always busy. Having finally reached the vendor, I’m told I have to speak to someone to “confirm” my order — only to find out that this is where the real sale takes place. Technology sets the bait; the telephone confirmation delivers the switch. The gist of the conversation goes along the lines of: “You want wheels with your car?” And by the time you’ve added the essentials, which its database listing failed to mention were not included, the price shoots above what the local Circuit City offered. (Circuit City, here I come.)

Sites like these “walk the line,” so they can’t really be reported to any business bureau that I’m aware of. And, unfortunately, from a pure technology perspective, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done to deal with this situation. It rankles, though, to see good technology turned to bad use.

QuickLink: 061407

–Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Boca Raton, Fla., and his Tolly on Technology column appears regularly in Network World. He can be reached

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