How to tell when a 'watchdog' isn't really one at all

These days it's getting so you can't tell the consumer watchdogs from the crooks. I've exposed a number of phony do-gooders over the years, and the pretend-watchdog routine runs rampant among competing marketers of junk-products like acai berry supplements and colon cleansers.

The way it works: One group of bogus marketers sets up something that looks like a product review site, and calls it a name that sounds like a consumer advocate. All the links on the page lead to product sites owned by the same company.

This time, though, we're going to look at a dressed-up, work-from-home scam. Here's a site that calls itself It pops up in link ads on, among other places, the Internet Movie Database.

At first, the site looks kind of convincing, with links to a radio network and an embedded video from an ABC network TV show that appears to be talking about this particular work-at-home site.

It's a common tactic of bogus marketing sites to link to video clips from network TV shows or to festoon the site with logos from big-media brands, to try to imply an endorsement that isn't there. Sure, Diane Sawyer may have been talking about working from home -- but not about what this site is selling.

TheConsumerWatchdog, as it turns out, is trying to sell $300-or-so "courses" that claim to teach you how to make thousands of dollars writing what sounds from the explanation like sock-puppet reviews for big-name companies. But by poking around on this site and doing a little background checking, we can make the determination, no matter how convincing its setup, is bogus:

  1. When you toggle between and the company offering the work-at-home course, the "Stratford Career Institute," the Web site's address doesn't change. It's still the URL of No legitimate consumer organization would self-review and then sell its own products this way. It's a conflict of interest.
  2. Do a WHOIS search on and you'll find fake data -- most notably, the phone number listed as the company's contact point is actually the main phone line for Network Solutions, the domain's registrar. No legitimate consumer organization on earth hides its identity like that.
  3. Dig into the Stratford Career Institute's home page and you'll see it cites a bogus report from something called The National Consumer Advocacy Group. Its Web site is almost convincing, except nowhere can you find a physical address or phone number -- contact is by e-mail only. Sure, some consumer groups don't want to give out their phone number so they don't have to be bothered talking to real human beings. But they don't hide their identity. Also, do a WHOIS search on the National Consumer Advocacy Group, and you'll see its Web site is blind-registered through a private proxy service. You shouldn't buy anything from a Web site that purposefully hides its identity. Should you accept "consumer advice" from one?
  4. High-paying work-at-home jobs don't grow on trees, no matter how many scam artists try to convince us they do. Under no circumstances should you pay anyone a fee to teach you how to find these kinds of jobs. Nor should you buy software that claims to help you find them. For that matter, pay no attention to advertisements in newspapers claiming to have the inside scoop on work-from-home jobs. This is a billion-dollar-a-year scam, and it's heartbreaking.
    So, now you know how to background-check a Web site. I hope you get in the habit of doing this with just about any Web site. Among the many treasures of the Internet lurk untold numbers of scammers trying to take your money, but with a little practice you can learn most of their tricks.

    Beau Brendler was the executive director of Consumer Reports WebWatch for eight years.
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