Federal and state investigators, warning that age-old scams are emerging in the cutting-edge world of the Internet, launched a coordinated search of the World Wide Web this week and said they uncovered hundreds of possible con artists.
The Federal Trade Commission and other agencies announced Thursday that they have sent e-mail messages to operators of more than 500 Web sites, warning that they may be operating illegal pyramid schemes, lotteries or chain letters.
"We're putting scam artists on notice. The Internet is not going to be a new marketplace where scam artists roam free," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "We've sent the message: 'Clean up your act or close down your site.' "
On Monday, investigators from the FTC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, 20 state attorneys general and five state securities regulators jointly ventured into cyberspace in a probe called "Internet Pyramid Surf Day." The investigators spent the day cruising the Web searching for scams.
Monday's cybersearch, Bernstein said, was conducted with the cooperation of five major online companies: America Online Inc., AT&T; Corp., CompuServe Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Netcom On-Line Communications Services Inc.
The FTC, the federal government's consumer protection agency, has for months warned that con artists are taking advantage of the Internet.
Operators of the sites identified as possible high-tech pyramid schemes during the sweep were notified that law enforcement agents are watching, Bernstein said. Information from the Web pages was downloaded for possible use as evidence in later cases, and operators were told where to go for information about what's legal and what's not. Investigators will revisit all those sites and take appropriate action if the operators don't mend their ways, Bernstein said.
The officials did not reveal the names of any Web sites they are monitoring.