Editorial: The wisdom of ‘surfer beware’ in age of fraud

Last modified: Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Internet is the ultimate exhibit hall for the art of deception. Right this minute, someone is cooking up a new way to separate fools (sorry, present company excluded) from their money. The most successful of these online traps invite people to misunderstand. How hard is that in a confusing world?

Not very.

That email you received from the IRS warning you about an audit? That message from your bank about suspected fraudulent activity in your account? Both probably bogus, along with that tantalizing inbox item from one of your Twitter friends that contains a link to a video and the message, “Wow, look what they’re saying about you.”

Wait an hour and you’ll get a message from your friend that his account was hacked.

Most web travelers know to adopt a “surfer beware” stance of caution. But it only takes a tiny fraction of computer users, in our global digital village, to make ruses that target the gullible pay off handsomely for their creators.

Brian Ross, an ABC News investigative reporter, tracked the case of one suspected online manipulator to South Hadley for a story that aired a week ago. The story makes the case that Donald B. Peltier of South Hadley had been taking advantage of unwitting political donors by operating two websites that, by their names, appear to be connected with the two main American political parties.

But officials with both deny any association with Peltier’s sites, registered as republicannationalcommittee.org and democraticnationalcommittee.org. Neither was working well when we visited them again Friday, perhaps due to fallout from Ross’ report. The link to “Donate” on the supposed GOP site brought up only a long delay.

South Hadley police told the Gazette they are looking into Peltier’s online activities and have contacted the state Attorney General’s office. Peltier acknowledges in the ABC story that he owns the sites, but denied any wrongdoing. The actual Republican and Democratic national committees told Ross their lawyers are revved up to fight back and have referred Peltier’s sites to the Federal Elections Commission and the U.S. Justice Department.

Anyone who scoured the sites might have found language that appears designed to allow their owner to claim he did not engage in fraud. One the page for would-be contributors, a line that’s not easy to read states that the sites are “not connected with any federal elections” and are “not subject to the limits and prohibitions of the Federal Election Campaign Act.”

Even donors trying to perform due diligence before laying out cash with a click could have been misled by those advisories.

By Monday, Peltier was striking back after ABC’s ambush interview and his run-ins with Ross and a cameraman, captured and depicted in the broadcast. The site bearing the name of the Democratic party had been converted into a screed against Ross’ reporting methods and his facts. Visitors were routed to the bluntly named “stupidross.org” website.

Is it stealing if strangers who give you money don’t read the fine print? Perhaps not in the legal sense, but it is dishonest. That is why Peltier’s boss at Fuel Services Inc. of South Hadley sacked him Monday after learning of the ABC News story.

That employer, Stephan Chase, told the Gazette’s Dan Crowley he was surprised by the ABC News story and was reportedly alarmed to see one of his delivery trucks pictured in the report. Peltier had driven for the company for some six years. “The one thing I expect from all my employees is that they are above reproach,” Chase said, adding, “We deal every day with people who work hard and have to pay their bills. I don’t have a lot of time to deal with people who take advantage of other people.”

Failing to be above reproach, in his employer’s eyes, doesn’t make Peltier guilty of online fraud. But it does seem to have connected his online adventures with a financial loss (his future paychecks).

That puts him in fine company: people who decided to engage in the American political process by Googling the name of one of the political parties and letting a misguided trust in technology, and their own inattention, lead them astray on sites operated by this Valley resident.


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