• Avoid forum pitfalls and stay safe


    You can safely join and participate in forums as long as you are aware of what they are and observe a few basic principles. Just because a site uses certain words such as "legal", it doesn't mean it's run by experts or specialists, nor that they are authorised or qualified. Anyone can set up a forum and anyone can join. Forum personalities hide behind anonymous screen names and there may be more than one individual behind a name and more than one name used by an individual.

    SEEK AND YOU SHALL FIND

    If you have an issue or are looking for information about a certain matter, chances are, others have been in the same situation and the issue has been addressed by someone somewhere online. Search results will often yield forum posts but there will also be other resources listed. Make sure you take a look at them before rushing to sign up and post or decide to follow the advice given on a forum.

    GOOGLE IT!

    If you want a little hand holding, attention and support, you may wish to bite the bullet, sign up and post. When you get a reply, make sure you do a little research of your own before acting on the advice given on a forum.

    SHOULD YOU GET VERIFIED?

    There is no reason why you should be asked to provide evidence of your identity or anything else to join a forum, however, there are exceptions, notably customer service and support groups run by specific companies or organisations. You may be required to provide a product serial number or software licence key to prove you are the rightful owner of certain products. In this case, you will know who runs the forums and why they are asking you for verification, so there should be no need to follow the guidelines provided here.

    SET UP A DEDICATED EMAIL ADDRESS

    You'll need a valid email address to sign up but it doesn't have to be your main personal or business email. If you use something like joebloggs1980@yourbusiness.com you are providing a lot of information about yourself. If your email contains your name, your business, company or employers' name, it's best to set up a separate email address for forum use. These days there are many free email providers out there, other than Google (gmail) and Microsoft (hotmail) which you may already be using for your personal or business email.

    Free web based email providers often let you choose from a number of domains to suit your interests. Mail2World has hundreds of domains, all starting with "mail2" and mail.com has generic domains as well as more niche ones.

    If an admin insists that you should sign up with, or provide your gmail, hotmail or business email address, you have to wonder why. If you don't know who they are, there is no reason they should know everything about you. The above are not disposable email addresses and many use them as their main email so don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Choose something that sounds genuine to avoid being banned as a spammer or troll. It's OK to call yourself "BMWguy", "carlover" or "ChelseaFan" as a reflection of your interests but using something like "bond007" could get you banned by admins without a sense of humour. If you are trying to stay anonymous, avoid using your name or company name.

    REDACT ALL DOCUMENTS

    It's not uncommon to be asked to post up copies of documents you have received, such as letters, emails, statements, etc. on forums and it may be necessary to do so in order to get a suitable response. Make sure you remove all personally identifiable information, not just your name and address but also any account numbers, claim numbers, reference numbers, barcodes, etc. None of this personal data is required to be able to help and it can be used to identify you.

    The easiest way to remove information is to use photo editing software and if you haven't got any, there are some free online versions such as pixlr. If you are not able to use any software to redact documents, cover up your details before using your camera or phone to take a photo.

    DO NOT SEND PERSONAL DATA TO PEOPLE YOU DON'T KNOW

    There shouldn't be a need to provide admins or other forum members with your personal information, in fact, the whole idea of forums is that everything should be shared with other members and posted up publicly. There is no reason to send anyone unedited documents and you should avoid doing so unless you know who you are dealing with. Some forums have official reps from companies and organisations on board. You should make sure you know exactly who they are representing and verify that they really work for the company in question before sending your personal details to anyone.

    If a forum admin asks to see unedited documents, you have to wonder why. Even if they are the forum owners, do you really know who they are? Do you know why they want to see your details and keep them on file? If in doubt, send only redacted copies or nothing at all.

    DO NOT TRUST FORUM PERSONAS

    Do you know who is behind the username? If not, don't trust them with anything personal. There's nothing stopping two or more people using a single log in and one person can also use two or more alter egos (AEs) or usernames. There are a lot of nice people on the forums and you can make some good friends, just remember there are also some treacherous ones amongst them and it's not always immediately obvious who is who.

    DO YOUR HOMEWORK

    Before you get deeply involved, find out all you can about the forum and any associated sites:
    • Who runs them? Can you find their real names somewhere?
    • These days most sites will have social media accounts. Find out more about the site and its movers and shakers by locating their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIN pages.
    • Do they run a limited company? If so, a lot of information, including the names of the directors and abbreviated accounts, will be in the public domain and available from Companies House and sites such as Companycheck.
    • If they provide things like debt advice, are they authorised? They may say they don't need to be, however, a lot of advice provided on forums constitute debt counselling as defined by the FCA, see Debt Advice and Regulation.
    • If they provide legal advice, are there qualified people posting and/or overseeing the advice?

    THINK BEFORE YOU PAY

    While forums are generally free, some feature premium sections where you have to pay to get in. It maybe an annual subscription or a one off payment, often referred to as a lifetime subscription. Some may give you the option to choose between the annual or lifetime subs.

    Find out what exactly are you paying for:

    • Is it premium content? If so, you should get an idea as to what sort of content you'll expect to find. Unfortunately most forums don't offer previews or free trials so you don't know what to expect. There may be very little that you can't access for free elsewhere.
    • You may have to pay for privacy, that is, to be able to post in a semi-private area limited to paying members. These areas are often referred to as "VIP", "Premium" or "Plus". If so, your money probably won't buy you access to any premium content and it could well limit the number of responses you get as only paying members will be able to see your posts.
    • Beware of sites that ask you to sign up for a premium area in order to deal with your particular issue or to refer you to a qualified professional, such as a solicitor.
    • In most cases, your payments will be regarded as "donations" towards the running and upkeep of the site. That means you'll have no cause to complain if you are not satisfied with what you got for your money.
    • You should also find out what happens if you get banned before your subscription expires, do you get a refund? This happens more often than you think, and not always for obvious reasons.
    • Asking you to pay, however little, may also be a way to verify your identity, for example, via your PayPal account. Make sure you are happy with this before you pay.

    SECURITY

    PayPal is a safe way to pay and so easy to implement, anyone can set it up in minutes. Beware of sites that ask you for debit or credit card or bank details directly and do not accept payments via PayPal.

    IS IT A SCAM?

    Forums are probably too complex and roundabout to be the preferred way for true scammers to operate. In most cases, the forum owner's agenda is likely to be more sophisticated.

    You may want to read the comments posted on this forum: Quatloos.


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