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Beware when booking online

"On the Internet," explains a computer-savvy pooch in a classic New Yorker cartoon, "nobody knows you're a dog."

Or a 16-year-old travel agent.

Until recently, John Cushma's 3-month-old booking site, FlightSource.net, had the look and feel of a more familiar competitor. The home page was adorned with Expedia's trademarked "Flight Price Matcher" and "Hotel Price Matcher" logos.

Like Expedia, it listed selected air fares under a heading of "Today's Deals" and even posted seals of approval from the Council of Better Business Bureau's "BBB Online" program and TRUSTe, a non-profit group that sets privacy standards for online companies.

Trouble was, FlightSource.net's young CEO never bothered to clear his plan with Expedia, the Better Business Bureau or TRUSTe.

"People who aren't techies don't realize how easy it is for a Web site to simply lift logos. Is it ethical or legal? Absolutely not," says BBB Online's Holly Cherico.

Within hours of my conversation with an obviously flustered Cushma, the Expedia icons and bogus seals of approval had vanished from FlightSource.net.

But it is not the only travel site to deceive would-be customers: Last year, the National Consumer League's Internet Fraud Watch project (http://www.fraud.org) ranked travel schemes among its top 10 categories, with many travel purchases included in the biggest complaint category, online auctions.

Travel still ranks as the largest segment of e-commerce, with an estimated 20-million U.S. Internet consumers expected to spend more than $20-billion on travel this year, says PhoCusWright, an online travel research firm.

At the same time, the online travel industry isn't immune to the current crash-and-burn mentality. Dozens of ventures have faltered, failed or been acquired in the past year.

To avoid being scammed by existing travel sites _ or left holding the mouse if a site bids farewell _ here is some advice on being a smarter shopper:

Evaluate a Web site the same way you would a brick-and-mortar company. Check for industry affiliations and/or seals of approval from consumer protection organizations such as BBB Online.

But do not take the travel site's word for it: Clicking on the seal should link you directly to the organization's home page, where you can do a search to be sure the company is legitimate.

Bypass sites that do not post a physical address and phone number, and be leery of grammatical mistakes, misspellings and static information that has not been updated for months.

Avoid cash payments and use a credit card, not a debit card. Credit cards offer more protection if a purchase turns sour or the site heads south before your trip.

Look for clearly stated privacy and security policies that spell out how the site will encrypt your credit card information. To be sure your credit card number is safe, look for the image of a closed lock in the lower left-hand corner of the browser window, and check that the site's URL begins with https instead of http.

Steer clear of unsolicited e-mails. According to the National Consumers League, an increasingly popular scheme involves e-mails that mimic those the airlines send with last-minute, Web-only fare specials. When customers call the toll-free numbers listed in the e-mail, they reach the scam artists, not an airline reservationist.

Collect as much information as possible about the travel suppliers who operate the trip you will be taking. Keep a meticulous paper trail, with printouts of confirmation numbers, itinerary details and customer service contacts.

Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Comments are welcome by e-mail to lsblyaol.com.

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