Ever encountered on the Internet a business and wondered if this website is a scam? The answers are not always cut and dried. Getting the big picture can help you avoid several pitfalls.
We are going through many “life changes” in the past few months, one of which is inheriting a delightful little spark that is in serious need of training, a rescue dog my father adopted. He recently passed away and so it was we began to acquaint ourselves with Gidget. She has a lot of bad habits, but she is affectionate and is, quite frankly, getting better. Even for an old dog.
So it was that my wife came across a website on her smartphone that specialized in training dogs online. While attempting to register, she seemed to have trouble confirming her payment. In the end, she wasn’t even sure that she had registered.
The credit card company, however, had a much different experience. I soon received an alert that several charges had been denied. Because I had delayed acting on these half-dozen denials, they locked the account. So it was that I had to call the credit card company to clear things up. I reviewed with them why it was denied, hoping to obtain some additional information about the company. The customer service agent’s response was to simply reiterate what the message stated, that it appears to be a combination of two factors. First, it was an expenditure outside our normal range of activity. Secondly, the charge came from overseas (Cyprus of all places). We purchase things on a regular basis from overseas, but it was true that subscribing for dog training was a new thing for us. My hunch was that there was more to this story. And “Cyprus” does sound a bit suspicious for a dog training business presumably located in LA.
In the world of scams, this particular case falls into a gray area. I scanned reviews and rating services and what I found was that “TrainPetDog.Com” had mixed reviews. To declare it a scam may be a bit presumptuous. The site gets a high rating on Trust Pilot. A review on a pet training site gave the website a mixed review. They had problems typical of a company that is throwing technology at a business model that is not quite fitting with reality. Their customer service was shoddy. And some people felt they had been defrauded. Getting refunds was difficult. Yet while I watched my wife struggle with the site on her smartphone, I noted her frustrations were common to a lot of websites that endeavor to squeeze what should be an interactive engagement with the customer onto a three inch screen.
So how can I break this down forensically?
The Name of the Company
It is not often that I come across a situation where I can’t easily find the name of the company behind the website. But trainpetdog.com has a tab label that says “Dog Obedience Training” and the page is titled “Dog Training for All Breeds.” There is a “Contact Us” link in the upper right and clicking on that presents a form where you can pose your question. So you have to scroll to the very bottom and click on “Contact Us” again to see a page with a wide array of options, sort of like a script to an automated attendant. Their phone number traces back to a landline in Gardena, CA. 1 The Better Business Bureau matches the phone number to “Dog Train Institute” located in West Hollywood, CA. The address traces to a veterinary clinic, but nothing on the store fronts have the street number posted.
In essence, this is a common problem with many websites. They are “ideas”, not “places.” My website is an idea. It has nothing to do with my physical address. So the ambiguous data on this website does not necessarily mean it is questionable. But it doesn’t help their cause because they are asking for your money. In a few short moments I traveled from Gardena, CA to a veterinary clinic in West Hollywood, CA.
Are the Pictures Original?
I must confess that I tripped on this phase of the investigation after I posted the article to the website. As is typical, I post the written content first and then integrat images. I often utilize images found in the “creative commons”, the general milieu of images which are tagged for public use without cost. After doing this for a while, you sort of get this eye for a non-original image. It was a hunch, but the images I scanned seemed canned. So I put one of them to the test.
Using BING, I searched the Internet for a match on this image of the woman and her dog. What I discovered was quite amusing. This image popped up on several dog training sites as well as Pinterest. That, in a nutshell, reduced this website to a staged operation. The website’s original impression was this is one example of a woman training her dog who learned this technique using their website.
What About the Domain?
Utilizing WHOIS, the data on TrainPetDog.Com is not good. It is registered through a proxy by the name of Whoisprotector.com. So there is absolutely no way to trace back the owner of the domain. Proxy registrations are appearing more often and it is a definite red flag. If a company cannot be held accountable, it provides the customer few options to technically address this problem. As regards the proxy itself, whoisprotector.com is not a functioning website. It is a product, offered at DomainPeople.
It is also a red flag when you consider that a domain name should be part of the brand. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to pretend to be a brand name without a company to back it up. Hiding behind a proxy seriously degrades the value of that brand name. This may explain the disconnect between the domain name and page titles noted above.
Why Was the Credit Card Really Rejected?
Anyone who has run a small business or non-profit can tell you that setting up a credit card payment system on your website is not exactly a point-n-click operation. Reputable credit card processing services are usually third-party operations that rest between the website and the credit card company. These operations have a set of rules which protect the business and the consumer. One thing that can derail this veil of trust is a history of challenged charges and delinquent refunds. In addition, the credit card company (or the bank that stands behind it) will have a similar screening standard because they are the ones that get caught holding the bag. The customer usually wins when a charge is challenged, but the credit card companies will not be thrilled about being the “customer service” branch of a business. Too many events of this sort will most likely result in denied charges.
This dovetails back to the credit card handling operations. If they generate a history of suspicious charges, banks will simply not recognize them as legitimate credit card services. The fact that the charge was directed through Cyprus did not help. Cyprus has a reputation for a being a money laundering center.
Maybe the Website Was Buggy?
What may be happening here has less to do with fraud than with simply being a buggy site. Without having technical data from the credit card company, it is hard to verify whether there was a technical problem with the credit card processing. But bugs do exist, especially on smartphone apps. I personally encountered a bug in my bank app. It is a considerable challenge to reduce what I can view on a 27” screen at home into a 3” space on my phone.
As I often note in my articles on fraud, the biggest friend of a scammer is misdirection shrouded in confusion. I see this daily on smartphone apps as confusing content and buttons appear on the screen. One popular misdirection is the appearance of the “NEXT” button, usually a large, green icon that covers a third of the screen. It seems almost a natural response to click the NEXT button so you can move forward. Except it redirects you to some other page. These sort of ads are often generated through the Google Adsense service and I consider them confusing if not outright deceptive. But credit card processes are often third-party sites. You are redirected. For a desktop presentation, that is usually easy to follow. For smartphones, you lose sight of the web page and you have no idea where exactly you are.
Another common problem I encounter is that a failed operation on a smartphone will not always be obvious. The error message may be off-screen, only discovered if you happen to scroll up or down. This is usually a design problem where programmers need to direct the user to the location of the error message. If pressing “OK” to complete a form produces an error, it needs to be near the “OK” button, not 50 lines up at the top of the form. Again, this is not so much of a problem on desktop screens.
The thing about fraud is that it is centuries old and we sometimes forget that the best way to avoid fraud is to use old-fashioned survival techniques.
First and foremost, begin locally. Think twice about purchasing an item or service over the Internet if the same is offered locally by real people who live in your locality. The Internet is the perfect environment for compulsive decisions. You think of a service you need, you use the Internet to explore what is out there and then you act. Be patient. Learn what you can from the Internet, but then look around for local resources.
When in doubt about a website, use a regular desktop computer. You will see the webpage better and you may discover there is an actual problem with your credit card or there is missing information.
As noted above, check out the company. Consider what you are purchasing and the private information you will disclose to buy their product. Do the basics.
- Does it have a physical address?
- Is there a phone number and have you checked it out?
- Look up the business on Google Map and see if there is a streetview of the address?
- Search for the business on your browser? Are any of the hits mentioning “fraud” or “scam,” or are there actual court cases or complaints evident.
- Search the same, but add a key word such as “fraud” or “scam”.
Use the WHOIS site. If the domain owner is shrouded in anonymity, I would not use the site if it involves your private information.
Which leads to the next thing – transparency. The Internet is geared toward “faceless” businesses. Unlike the local hardware store, internet-based businesses may not have a physical address. Thus, it is logical that any internet-based business that hopes to succeed will recognize that the customer will need a dependable way to contact them using the telephone or by using tools like WHOIS to affirm that they are a legitimate operation.
In essence, it appears that trainpetdog.com fails for some really old-fashioned reasons.
- They veil their domain registration with a proxy
- Their address listed at the Better Business Bureau appears to not exist
- Nothing about their location is evident on their webpage. I shouldn’t have to go to the Better Business Bureau to find this sort of information.
- Payment serviced through Cyprus?
- Phone number is traced to a different location than the business address
- Utilizes canned images
As I have noted in other articles, you may want to set up a score sheet that you can use to grade a website.
- Based on data from PhoneLookup.com ↩︎
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner