Friday, January 30, 2009

Referral Websites - A Total Rip-Off and Waste of Time

Referral Websites - A Total Rip-Off and a Waste of Time.

As I noted in my "Scams" article, the first three hits in Google are basically a waste of time, if not a total rip-off.

Many people are skeptical that the Internet can be a good source of information, services, or goods, and they have plenty of reason to think this. For every decent and honest merchant on the Internet, there are probably 5 that are just horrible, if not criminal.

However, the same could be said to be true for "brick and mortar" stores in your hometown. Undoubtedly you know which mechanic in your town in honest and decent, and which is a con-man. Your local bank may be upright and sound, but the payday loan places on the other side of town are a total con. The local furniture store has quality merchandise and reasonable prices. But the "rent-to-own" place sells particle board furniture to poor people on inflated installments. Just because a business has a physical presence you can feel and touch, does not mean it is legitimate.

On the Internet, you can kind of spot the same sort of things online that tip you off about sleaze artists in person. If someone advertises too heavily, with pop-up ads, targeted ads, and the paid ads in Google, chances are, they are not a good bargain. This is not to say they are fraudulent, just not a good deal or perhaps just a waste of time.

These sites often masquerade as other websites, and oftentimes if you type in one keyword, their site comes up on Google, with the name of the company you were actually looking for.

One such site popped up in the health insurance arena recently, while I was trying to find a company site for a friend who had no computer. The site popped up and it appeared to be the site for that company. "For a health insurance quote, click here!" it said. So we did and we entered all his personal information.

At the end of these pages of data entry, all we got was a page saying "an insurance professional will be contacting you shortly!" So, no quote. Then I realized that the site was just a "harvesting" site that took your personal information and data and then resold this as "leads" to insurance brokers - or others.

Within a day, my friend got a call. Not from an insurance broker or company, but from one of these come-on "medical discount" places that claimed to be "better than insurance!" but of course was not insurance. No REAL insurance company or broker called him.

(Hint: You want insurance? Call an insurance company. Blue Cross or Kaiser, for example. There is no magic bullet here, they are all going to be pretty expensive and provide limited coverage).

I thought I would shop my homeowners policy on my house, and again, tried typing in "cheap homeowners insurance" into Google. What happened was an interesting "spin" on this whole concept. One of the top hits was an "article" about homeowners insurance than recommended a "comparison site" so you could "shop several companies at once." And of course, they had a helpful linky to that site.

Only later did I realize that the "article" was a put-up job for that site, which had many other articles planted on the Internet, and keyed to be "discovered" on Google when you type in "homeowners insurance" or any combination of certain words.

I went onto this website, which promised me "competitive quotes" from a number of different insurance companies. After filling out way too much personal information (they want your social security number? Hmmmm.....) the site then basically gives you the names of a number of agents in your area or links to their websites. I could do this with the yellow pages or online in about 3 minutes.

Of course, if I did that, they would not get referral fees, right?

Then I get a phone call while I am in the shower. "Mr. Bell, how are you today?" he reads from the script.

Anytime someone asks you "how are you today?" in a business call, you are headed for trouble.

I told them I was in the shower and what was the quote, and he said he needed about 20 minutes of my time to discuss the quote. Apparently, I would have to give him all the information I gave the website online - all over again. Dripping wet, I said "later".

Then I get an e-mail saying they have a quote ready for me, but again, no quote, just instructions to call a 1-800 number. If they have "quote" it has to be a dollar amount, not a phone number.

Then "Amber" calls me this morning and says, based on the exhaustive information I provided, that "Acme" is the best insurance company for me, based on their calculations. Acme? "Please hold for an agent" she says.

So I hold and hold, and Amber comes back and says they are having phone problems.

Finally, she sends me to an agent.

Again, "Mr. Bell, how are you today?" and I say "Look, I've spent over an hour now entering data online and talking to people on the phone, do you have a quote for me or not? Because I have other things to do with my time."

And he says "thank you very much" and hangs up. He obviously wanted to "chat".

I am not sure what these types of "comparison" sites do for anyone, other than take all your personal information and then sell it or refer it to local agents and perhaps get a commission. But if they are not going to provide numbers, what is the point?

I enter all this data and all it does is refer me to a local agent. I can do that with an old phone book or yellow pages online.

These sort of sites are not the GEICO of homeowners or health insurance. As far as I can see, it is just an utter waste of time. I can find Nationwide, State Farm, and Safeco in the phone book without their help. All they do is "refer" you to these agencies and collect referral fees. There is no "instant quote" comparison or other data provided.

Too many sites on the Internet these days like this - all they do is take your information and then try to garner referral fees. Where is the savings in that?
Hint: The FIRST THREE HITS in Google are usually rip-offs or utter wastes of time. Just avoid these types of sites and save yourself a lot of hassle. Your local yellow pages has better data.

As with any other financial transaction, you often have to make mistakes to learn. One reason I am posting these tracts (diatribes?) is to help others (and hopefully so others can help me) cut to the chase and avoid wasting time and money on financial mistakes.

Finding good deals on the Internet is possible. However, it does require some digging. When you see a website that misrepresents itself or comes on too strong with heavy advertising, chances are, it is just a come-on.