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Published: Thursday, 12/18/2008

If it looks too good to be true, it probably isn't

PEACE on Earth, good will toward men are nice sentiments, as long as you remember to keep a sharp eye out for the sharks and grifters especially evident this time of year. These folks love the holiday spirit, mostly because there are so many more unsuspecting dupes shopping than at any other time.

For bad guys looking for a fast buck, fleecing rubes in the season of giving is like shooting fish in a barrel.

And I almost was one of those fish.

I have a granddaughter. Well, actually, I have several, but this Christmas story is about just one of them - Staci.

This year, perhaps because she's nearly 17 and already in possession of her two front teeth, Staci wanted a fancy electronic gizmo small enough to fit in your pocket but with about a gazillion gigabytes of memory. This little beauty plays music, videos, games, movies, and TV shows; explores the Internet, and probably would wake her up in the morning, do her homework, cut up her dinner for her if she asked.

You know the kind of must-have electronic wonder I'm talking about.

Well, these "toys" cost about as much as my whole computer, so Staci naturally looked for a soft touch for this stocking stuffer, and there's no one softer than her grandparents - especially, I'm sorry to say, her grampa.

So I went exploring stores, both real and virtual, and eventually found an Internet deal that would not only make her wish come true, but put visions of sugar plums dancing in my head as well because I wouldn't have to get a second mortgage or sell the dog to buy it.

The company's Internet store looked legit, and the savings were so huge that I parked my common sense at the portal and pulled out my plastic in a rush to make a down payment on some granddaughterly love. But after I had handed over my credit information, some things on the Web site began to give me second thoughts. And, I have to admit, I had had a sneaking suspicion all along that my greed was getting the better of my common sense, which believes the adage about deals too good to be true.

Over the next two days, I, first, dropped an e-mail to customer service with a question about my order but no one wrote back; then I called the customer service number and left a message, which also was ignored. By that time I was getting seriously concerned that my next credit card bill was going to look like General Motors' quarterly report.

I also still really, really wanted the deal to be real, so instead of calling the credit card company to stop payment, I looked up the main office address in California listed on the Web site and came up with a corporate number for what I thought was the company.

Feeling somewhat better, I called and talked to a very nice woman who immediately made me feel worse. I turns out that the real company, which has a deceptively similar Internet address, does make electronic components but is not the company at the Web site that sold me my electronic gizmo.

Whoever had set up the site had used a hyphenated version of the real company's address to make the scam look legitimate. She said she'd fielded about 75 calls from fools like me (she didn't call me a fool; I just felt like one) who had been taken in.

This tale of bamboozlement, fortunately, had a moderately happy ending for me. I informed my credit card company, which put a stop on purchases, cancelled my card number, and sent me a card with a new number. The worst that will happen to me is that I have to start all over again trying to rent Staci's affection for another year.

Other folks were not so lucky. I've read accounts from fellow chumps who didn't get out before money had been exchanged for nonexistent products. At least one person was snookered out of $500 that he's not likely to see again. And I imagine that the real electronics firm also is paying a price in negative publicity associated with its name.

So, when you're looking for those special - and wildly expensive - goodies your kids, grandkids, husbands, wives, and lovers just can't live without, remember what nearly happened to me when I let my desire to save a few bucks get the better of my judgment.

Consider this my Christmas present to you.

Kendall F. Downs is a Blade associate editor.

Contact him at: kdowns@theblade.com



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