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The Federal Trade Commission devised the Internet "Surf Day" in 1996 as an efficient way to look for pyramid schemes online. Since then, the law enforcement Surf Day has become a popular tool for the Commission and other agencies to identify online scams of all kinds. The Commission also has used Surf Days to get a snapshot of other online practices, such as the posting of privacy policies. FTC Surf Days have focused on such things as:
- Health claims. In 1997 and 1998, the Commission participated in two Surf Days with officials from 25 countries to learn about websites promoting products to treat six major diseases. In just a few hours, law enforcement agents were able to identify approximately 800 websites and Usenet newsgroup messages making questionable claims.
- Pyramids. In 1996 and 1999, two Surf Days with dozens of states, the SEC, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service found over 1,000 websites promoting apparently unlawful pyramid schemes.
- Business and investment opportunities. In 1997 and 1998, Surf Days with participation by more than 50 federal and state agencies identified over 600 websites making questionable business and investment opportunity claims.
- Junk email. The FTC browsed its own enormous database of unsolicited email — which the Commission had invited consumers to forward -- and found over 1,000 of them problematic.
- "Quick ship" claims. In 2003 the FTC conducted a surf of 51 Internet retailers selling holiday items to review "quick ship" claims, rebate offers, and other disclosures for certain popular items. As a result of the surf, the FTC staff sent letters to 37 e-tailers to help them better comply with FTC requirements.
An efficient tool, the law enforcement surf accomplishes two objectives: it provides a window for law enforcement to learn about online practices, and it provides an opportunity for the FTC to alert website operators — some of whom are new entrepreneurs unaware of existing laws — if their sites appear to violate the law. This is done by emailing messages to the operators of sites with problems, explaining why their sites may violate the law and providing a link to the FTC website, where more information is available. Follow-up visits reveal that of the operators who are notified that their sites may violate the law, 20-70% improve or remove their sites. Website operators who continue questionable practices may become the subjects of FTC law enforcement efforts.
- ↑ The Surf Days focused on products for treating heart disease, cancer, AIDS/HIV, diabetes, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
- ↑ To surf, the FTC identifies a type of deceptive practice that warrants investigation. It then recruits law enforcement partners to search the Web for a specific period of time using a protocol tailored to the Surf Day’s subject matter. Sites with troubling claims are identified, preserved, and forwarded to the FTC for review.