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You dream of working online from the comfort of your home; at your own time. But a search for work opportunities reveals hard-to-believe offers like 'Turn your Home Computer into a Cash Machine!' or 'Guaranteed Income - You have nothing to lose!'

They come to your inbox, or as pop-up and banner ads on Web sites and paint a marvelous picture of a 'proven internet business plan' that can make you rich without any experience or skills.

What you often end up doing is paying for an e-book with 'foolproof online work ideas' which range from creating a site to hosting zillions of banners, multilevel marketing schemes and online 'order processing' to sending emails using a database you have to purchase.

But not everything online is a scam: There are feasible options for making some money online. And we're not talking about earning $0.05 dollars to read ads or email!

Knowledge or information based services that require you to use your experience or skills are a good way to make money. Some sites hire your services for their clients; others put you in touch with people who need your services.

Rummaging the Web

Online research is emerging as a good opportunity. If you've used search engines to look for specific information, you'd know how tiresome it is to sift through the junk before you arrive at what you want.

Services like Google Answers save surfers the hassle of searching themselves. Surfers post queries on computing, shopping, entertainment or food, and Google's team of online researchers get cracking on the information requested. You can set the price for your answer on the basis of the work involved. Three-fourths of the price goes to the researchers. Responses are rated by the people who request the information, while registered users offer comments.

Companies like ClicknWork and AskDownUnder hire online researchers to offer Web search and information services to their clients.

"There's a growing awareness that the Web is not that easy to navigate and most business executives have other things to do with their time," says Roger Sharpe of ClicknWork, whose team of Web researchers, editors and information specialists located worldwide provide research and writing services to such businesses.

He adds: "We have requirements for different skills like specialist knowledge, business writing etc. But most of our work is based on sourcing quality answers to business questions."

AskDownUnder offers cheaper Web search services for companies in developed countries as they have online researchers from developing counties like India where the cost of living is lower.

Dr Steven Tsitas, managing director, who posted ads for researchers at Naukri.com, says that over 1,600 people in India have signed up.

"There's no fee to join. Anyone can sign up - irrespective of age, sex, nationality or country of residence," says Tsitas. "You have to be intelligent, excellent at researching information online and have an ability to think laterally and find results from imperfect information. Since many things people want are not on the Internet, you have to think of what else would be relevant and draw from life experience and general knowledge to close in on the answer."

Unlike AskDownUnder, ClicknWork requires researchers to take an online test to qualify as part of the team. There's a pre-test and a full test depending on your profile - whether you're an expert Web guide, searcher or business writer. Google also runs researchers though an application process testing their research skills and the quality of their answers.

ClicknWork has tutorials to help you research effectively, and there are sites with tips on where to find online databases and tools to help you locate hard-to-find information.

ClicknWork pays about $10 an hour for searchers and $15-50 for expert Web guides, while business writers or editors make about $15-30 for a 90-minute online session. AskDownUnder allows researchers to quote a price per query. Once a client accepts the quote, the researcher is alerted and sets to work.

Says Tsitas: "It's difficult to say exactly how much a person could make, since everyone competes against each other. Researchers are free to quote whatever price they want and the clients decide if they want to accept that quote instead of others from researchers with perhaps higher or lower overall ratings."

He adds that a person in India working full time as a researcher could expect to make a good Indian (not a US) wage: "If a researcher in India tried to quote US prices they would presumably be undercut by others from India. However, good researchers receive high ratings by clients and should be able to command more money for their services."

Expert advice

Most of us have an interest or area of specialisation. If you know a lot on a certain subject, you could make money by giving advice on that topic. Fee-based sites provide advice in particular areas and have teams of paid online experts around the world who are proficient in their fields.

Kasamba.com has a directory of online experts in categories like religion, relationships and travel. You can register and give advice by email, chat or phone. Rates can be set by the minute or the hour.

If you're a computer or Internet expert, supportfreaks.com, a 24X7 help site allows you to answer such queries via chat. Commissions can also be earned by bringing business or clients to the site.

Other services that invite people with some professional expertise are surfbrains.com and bumperbrain.com. All these sites screen their experts and you're required to send in a CV or summary of the experience you have in any area.

Though LiveAdvice and Keen have an online directory of advisors, the phone is their main medium of dispensing advice.

Not all affiliate marketing, referral programmes, pay-to-read-email and pay-to-surf programmes are scams. Some will actually send cheques to different countries. Check out reviews of such sites at European Telework Online and FreeMoneyGuide. But while you may make some money, you'll generally end up spending much more on bandwidth and telephone calls.

Also, setting up a site and hosting banners on it isn't going to make you rich overnight. It only helps if your site has a decent amount of traffic. You can then sign up for referral programmes that you'll find on sites like Commission Junction.

If you're looking for other opportunities, Sharpe recommends trying established e-marketplaces like guru.com and elance.com.

Scam guard!

There are 'work online' scams, and then there are scams that warn you of other scams while claiming to be your one-way ticket to riches. You need to be on your guard to identify the real work opportunities.

Watch out for big promises of easy money. There's no such thing as a free lunch, offline or online. "Look for a track record," says Sharpe, "Never pay for anything and make it clear that the site will not expect payment from you later." Legitimate employers will not ask you for money.

Also check NetScams and ScamFreeZone for listings of genuine work opportunities.

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