Vanishing Playstation sites: the latest swindle?

When Vickie Olsson heard an impossible-to-find PlayStation2 was available online at The PlayStation Store of Canada, she had visions of her two sons beaming with glee on Christmas morning.

She visited the Web site and, sure enough, plenty of PlayStation2 consoles were "in stock". She whipped out her American Express card and eagerly forked over $US563 (about $1000) for the console and waited. And waited.

Weeks later she still is waiting. She's among hundreds who were fooled by Web sites into thinking they had found the popular console, according to the US Better Business Bureau and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which are both investigating dozens of complaints about two PlayStation Store sites.

"That really blows my big Christmas present for the family," Olsson says.

Under investigation

As of Thursday, the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus has estimated that $US400,000 (around $715,000) worth of Playstation2 orders have been processed by operators of two Web sites bearing the PlayStation name, PS2StoreUSA and PS2StoreCanada, both operating out of New Brunswick, Canada. Also by Thursday, both sites are no longer operating, with no referral.

The Better Business Bureau is fielding 200 complaints in the United States and Canada about the two PlayStation Store sites. The US Federal Trade Commission confirms it is looking into the matter as well.

"We are advising people they are at great risk of being defrauded if they do business with these Web sites," says Detective Barry Elliott of the Ontario Provincial Police. No formal charges are filed.

Before the sites disappeared, they displayed a message acknowledging the controversy and defending the company. The message suggests a different online merchant that operated under a similar name is the one that ran off with customers' money.

The message is misleading, says Elliot and numerous customers. They say there is no confusion, and the PS2Store sites have failed to ship PlayStation2 consoles.

Hazards lurk in wired shops

Consumer advocates urge would-be e-shoppers to practice safe shopping, and to ensure many happy returns long after the gifts are unwrapped. Their tips:

"Know who you're dealing with," says Holly Cherico, with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Get online merchants' offline addresses so you can check on them.

Use credit cards with relatively low limits, and ones that protect you in the event of theft or non-delivery. Check credit card receipts and bills for accuracy as soon as you get them.

Don't comply with requests by e-merchants to fax a photocopy of your credit card. Many Playstation Store of Canada customers were told delivery would be expedited if they did so. Credit card companies warn that your signature, along with sensitive information such as your credit card verification code, is on the back of your card.

Make sure refund or exchange policies are clear. There are no standards, so it's important to know each site's guidelines. If nothing is posted on the site, ask whether you must pay for return shipping.

Guard your privacy. Because some online stores collect customer information, find out what the site is gathering about you and how it will use the data.

Print a copy of your online order form as a virtual receipt and proof of purchase.

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