Look for a way to fix your credit or transfer money on Microsoft's Bing these days and you'll get some friendly advice from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC has teamed up with Microsoft to place public service announcements in search results, every time someone searches for one of these terms.
The idea is to lend a helping hand to consumers who get targeted with mortgage foreclosure or credit scams and turn to Bing for more information. A search for "fix my credit," for example, generates about a dozen ads, but one of them is an FTC public service announcement entitled "Avoid Credit Repair Scams." (Strangely, a Bing search for "avoid credit repair scams" does not turn up the FTC page in the initial search results)
Microsoft has also taken on so-called advance-fee fraud, by directing people to its own warning page. In these scams, victims are told that they've inherited money or won a lottery, but they must first pay an administrative fee before they can claim their prize. In one common scam, victims are told they've won the (nonexistent) Microsoft Lottery. Of course, the prize never comes.
"These particular issues are not the only scams or fraud consumers might come across online, but they certainly are some of the more prevalent scams out there," wrote Microsoft Associate General Counsel Tim Cranton in a Tuesday Blog Posting announcing the public service ads. "We see this campaign as a positive step in an ongoing effort to help make the Internet a safer place."
Online scams are becoming a big problem for search engine providers these days, as criminals have become adept at manipulating search algorithms to place their own pages at the top of search results, often linking them to the top news stories of the day.
Search companies must play a cat-and-mouse game with these scammers to keep malicious or fraudulent pages out of their results.
According to the FTC, about 63 percent of the 370,000 fraud complaints it logged in 2008 were generated by the Internet, with the majority of them -- 194,000 -- happening when the victim was first contacted via e-mail.
Microsoft's warnings are "a fine start, and probably the best tactic for searches associated with known email scams," said Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School who researches Internet advertising. "If a user searches for 'Microsoft lottery', someone should tell them they're at risk of being scammed, and it's great that Microsoft puts that information front-and-center," he said via e-mail.
However, he noted that all advertisers could do a better job of removing deceptive ads from their inventory. "Historically these ads have been particularly widespread on Google, though it's increasingly easy to find them on Yahoo and Bing," he said. "I'd like to see all search engines scrub their advertiser lists to remove such scams."