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Internet crime: What a tangled web

That financial fraudsters will practise to deceive is a big worry as the World Wide Web and other Internet services proliferate. And when electronic cash is commonplace what will become of the traditional monetary system? Michelle Celarier reports on criminal bugs in a promising-looking system and the solutions proposed by regulators and law-enforcers

The bright-blue starry sky depicted on an Australian web page for Fortuna Alliance offers an enticing proposition: "Make your income soar like the space shuttle." But a click of the mouse is enough to bring World Wide Web surfers down to earth. A web press release by Fortuna acknowledges that its US home page was shut down by the US Federal Trade Commission in May, after the company had been accused of running an illegal pyramid scheme. Operating for just six months out of a small town in the US Northwest, Fortuna, the FTC alleges, bilked tens of thousands of investors in dozens of countries out of an estimated $9 million. By value, it is the biggest Internet fraud to date.

The Fortuna case has opened the FTC's eyes to the vast potential for Internet crime ­ and has taught it something about the complications of international law enforcement that can be involved. "The Internet makes it possible to perpetrate such a crime anywhere," says Charles Harwood, FTC regional director in charge of the case. After receiving warnings from authorities in Australia, Canada and from the local police before being shut down, Fortuna's operators disappeared offshore, as did most of the money they had collected.

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