Salesmanship, and pure deception

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2015

By Charlie Mitchell

There’s nothing new about the need for buyers to beware, but the Internet has provided a whole new arena for deception.

There are many honest brokers in e-commerce who provide us with information, variety, fair prices and deliver as promised.

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But there are also insidious tactics and practices. Some rise near the level of extortion. And even the most wary “shopper” may not be able to detect the scam.

An example: Let’s say Bob has a men’s clothing store in Hattiesburg. If he’s like 99 percent of all business owners he will want some sort of presence on the Internet, so he’ll hire a school kid to create a Facebook page or a website.

Within a couple of days, Bob may hear from an information aggregator. The message will tell Bob he can really boost his presence on the worldwide web by paying the company a small monthly fee for its services.

If he does, Bob gets the blessing of favorable filtering for his fee. No one will check his merchandise, verify his prices or anything else, but Bob’s shop will be “recommended.”

If Bob doesn’t ante up, you’d think, well, that would be that. But, no.

When anyone in the area searches for “men’s clothing,” Bob’s shop will either not appear or appear as “not recommended.” Any negative comments, real or concocted, will be given prominence. Favorable ratings will disappear.

So, fine. As long as Bob has built a clientele who like him and his store, no problem. But new business? Because Bob declined to participate in today’s equivalent of a protection racket, anyone who checks the Internet will think, well, he doesn’t measure up.

Today’s consumer will have no idea that one business is rated “good” only because it agreed to pay up and another appears as “bad” because it declined to buy an endorsement from a company that manipulates Internet content.

In another enterprising approach to treachery, about three years ago, someone discovered a way to profit from arrest records. Say a businessman gets a DUI in Las Vegas or a PTA mom is nabbed for shoplifting. Odds are, this information would never make it to the local press or any media.

Still, theses entrepreneurs find the record, contact them and demand payment to keep the report out of their online database. Fees from $500 to $5,000 would be paid out of fear the information would turn up in a background check. And guess what? The arrest report doesn’t disappear. All the entrepreneurs promised is they would keep it out of their database; they can’t erase public files.

As might be expected, state and federal lawmakers are being asked to step in.

The challenge is the difficulty of diving into the gray area between unethical conduct and illegal conduct, of redrawing where the dividing line will be.

Back in the day when local television and newspapers dominated the marketplace, expectations were different and ethical lapses would have been clear. That’s becoming fuzzier, too.

Today, a “good health” segment on the “news” just happens to feature the great work being done at the clinic or hospital that also buys a lot of commercials. Similarly, the anniversary of a car dealership or a department store is newsworthy in the printed press in proportion to the amount of advertising purchased by the dealership or store.

Researchers say that unlike “back in the day,” consumers are not as wary. Today’s consumers want information about products, services, destinations and such, period. They don’t care whether the information is neutral, but do care whether it is factual and reliable.

And that’s the only rub, really, with this new wave of insidiousness. There is often no way to tell whether a recommendation is real or whether it has been purchased.

Thanksgiving is behind us, so the frenzy of shopping and travel is at its annual peak. Only one admonition fits: Be careful out there.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at