Today sees the start of the British Government’s “Scam Awareness Month”. Councils across the UK are backing the Office of Fair Trading’s campaign to make us all aware of “scams” that cost us dear. Shame the OFT doesn’t know about it – or at least doesn’t appear to. According to the OFT’s web site, it’s current campaign is about Christmas. Oh dear – another Government department that doesn’t understand the Internet – just like HMRC.

Scams are nothing new. They’ve been going on ever since trading began back in cave dwelling days. What’s surprising is that we still fall for them. Online scams get a great deal of media attention and we all know the problems caused by spam emails offering us some prize in a competition we never entered, or the ability to enlarge parts of our anatomy without any surgery.

In fact, these are the least of our worries. Guess what the biggest two sources of complaints to the consumer watchdogs have been in the past year – cars and mobile phones. Not the Internet, not “competition”, not even spam. No, it’s seemingly upright and honest companies that cause us the biggest problems.

Even so, scammers make a profit from their endeavours, so clearly there are enough people gullible enough. According to the OFT, here’s what scammers do:

  • They contact you without you asking them to call or email
  • They appear slick and professional
  • They are persistent and persuasive
  • They ask for money in advance

Now it strikes me that these are not unusual business practices at all. After all, I receive unannounced calls and emails from slick, professional and persuasive people – but almost all of them are above board and honest. Indeed, much Internet marketing advice suggests you should do all of these things; to avoid things like sequential autoresponders, well-designed web sites and persuasive copy is online business suicide the gurus tell us.

But the line between “scam” and honest business is very blurred. In Florida, the authorities are taking Internet marketers to court because of some seemingly unusual practices. Yet, what these marketers are alleged to have done is not specific to the Internet; it’s the kind of thing that’s been happening for years.

So, if you run an honest online business, how do you stop your work being seen as a scam? Easy. Be honest and be seen to be honest; in other words, concentrate your online efforts in building trust. If people trust you they will buy from you. The reason the mobile phone industry is cited in so many complaints is that they have worked hard in building up high levels of trust – but have not backed such trust with action. For instance, they develop a fantastic brand, have great products, and ensure we can stay connected 24/7. Then, when we take our phone abroad they charge us an arm and a leg for a text message that costs them next to zilch. We are stung. The mobile phone industry faces such huge negative criticism because the trust it has built is not backed by the action it takes. Don’t let your online business appear like a scam, even if it isn’t. Instead, be honest, act honest and do everything you can in order to gain trust. It’s a long term online strategy, but one that works.

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