By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 10/31/2005 3:55:53 PM ET 2005-10-31T20:55:53

If it looks too good to be true ... it must be a new government Web site designed to help consumers spot Internet fraud.

The "Looks Too Good To Be True" site, launched Monday, includes real-life scam tales, new warnings, and quizzes designed to educate consumers.

"Law enforcement can only do so much,'' said Dan Mihalko, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "So we are trying to arm people with information so they don't lose their money."

Among the tales on the new Web site: The story of a woman who was duped by a would-be lover after joining an online dating site. She fell for a man named Cole who said he was in Lagos, Nigeria, and cashed a series of checks for him.

"I'm still paying the darn bank back," writes a woman identified as Lydia on the site.

The Web site is a cooperative effort of the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center, the postal inspection service, and several private firms, including Monster.com and Target Corp.  Consumers can also order free educational DVDs from the site.

The new site comes on the heels of a similar effort recently announced by the Federal Trade Commission, which recently published its OnGuardOnLine.gov site. The theme of that site is “Stop. Think. Click.”

Officials say they are overwhelmed with complaints about Net crime and are trying to enlist consumers’ help to stem the tide. Last year, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received 207,000 complaints, an increase of 66 percent over the previous year. The average consumer lost $220 per complaint.

The redoubled efforts at consumer education also come within days of a new study released by Consumers Union indicating increased distrust is making consumers shy away from the Internet. The study suggested 25 percent of consumers said they’d stopped shopping online because of concerns about privacy and crime. Nearly one-third said they’d altered their online behavior in some way.

But the news from the research world isn’t all bad. A study released Oct. 19 by ACNielsen Online suggested that one-tenth of the world’s population had purchased at least one item from the Internet, and over 300 million people had made a purchase in the past month.

Donna Gregory, spokeswoman for the Internet Crime Complaint Center, said she was optimistic that LooksTooGoodToBeTrue.com would get the attention of consumers. While her agency issues alerts on its Web site, consumers often miss them, or only find them after they’ve been defrauded, she said.

The new site aims to get consumers' attention before they are scammed. Cooperation from private companies is a key element, she said, with some merchants planning to include a link to the site in the confirmation e-mails they send after a consumer purchase.

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