NOWADAYS, almost everyone shops for real estate on the Internet, as potential buyers can view pictures, features and prices of properties in the comfort of their own homes.Realtors and developers know this, which means that a lot of information is available. As a result, it can be hard to find exactly what you are looking for among all the ads, pop-up windows and millions of search results. The other challenge is gauging the reliability of information you find on the Web.How to Get Good Results It is important to note that Google, MSN and Yahoo! all give different results for any search; therefore, it’s a good idea to perform searches using all three engines. An easy way do this is to use a meta-search engine such as Search.com, Dogpile.com or Mamma.com. These search several sources at once and offer handy related searches and options – alternate suggestions that give you more focused terms related to your first query.Thinking about what you are looking for before you start searching is a great way to save time. By far, the most popular search phrase is “Costa Rica real estate,” though this is not actually a very good query. It’s too general, and includes homes, land and buildings – unlikely as it is that you will be buying all of these at once. Include the area or neighborhood you want, the kind of property you are looking for and even specific features. You will go directly to more relevant pages and sites if you type in “Tamarindo Costa Rica ocean view beach condo for sale,” rather than just “beach condo.”Another way to narrow down your search is by using the search engines’ advanced features. Search engines offer advanced search menus where you can ask for an exact match, eliminate words you don’t want in the pages and even specify where the term appears on the page. Using these features, if you’re looking for a vacation home to buy, for example, you can eliminate vacation travel sites, vacation homes for rent and vacation homes in other countries from your search results.How to Avoid Scam Artists Once you start finding sites, an important issue arises. How can you tell if a really slick Web site belongs to a reputable realtor or developer? You should follow several rules to ensure you don’t get conned:–First and foremost, don’t send any money! Money for real estate transactions is placed in escrow, or you pay when you are sitting in the lawyer’s office (hopefully your own lawyer) and the seller signs the papers.–Don’t buy a property you haven’t seen in person. There is no way you can tell what a property is like before you see it.–Get references. Before you decide to deal with a realtor or developer, ask him or her for references from clients, other professionals and business associates.–While you are surfing, you can watch for a few telltale signs on Web sites. Reputable people tend to post their photos on the site. Some may be camera shy, but it is pretty standard for a realtor to have a photo and brief biography somewhere on the site.–Contact information is vital. The physical office address or mailing address, multiple phone numbers and particularly names are important.–Many sites make a point of showing their affiliations to groups such as the Costa Rican Chamber of Realtors, international organizations or franchises, and local business associations. These are all good signs, when the affiliation is meaningful and involves a group that really exists.–Another good sign is if the site links to other realtor Web sites in Costa Rica. If they will tell you about realtors in other areas of the country, it means they have strong relationships in the industry.–No Google ads. I take it as a warning sign when a site has “sponsor” ads from Google or Overture on it. Realtors and developers should make money from property sales, or providing valuable services to buyers and sellers – not from the traffic of browsers clicking on ads on their Web sites. While this is not a sure sign of misbehavior, it would tell me to watch closely for other signs.–No hyperbole. There is a big difference between good ad copy and outrageous claims. For example, watch out for claims such as the following (taken from the site of a known rip-off):“In the last five years property values have increased 30-fold and are expected to continue to increase dramatically as U.S. industry, tourism and retirement surges.”(So, if I bought a condo in Escazú in 2000 for $100,000, it is now worth $3 million!)“At this very moment the Costa Rican government is building a super highway from the international airport in San José to the central Pacific coast… The government is also building an additional airport in the city of Orotina…” (Somebody better tell Alterra, the airport management company, that the government is building a whole new airport behind its back!)There are two old sayings to keep in mind when judging claims made on any Web site: “You get what you pay for,” and “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.” Investing in real estate and construction in Costa Rica can be highly profitable and rewarding, but there is no magic formula.You can’t reasonably expect to come across a Web site on the Internet that will allow you to triple a $6,000 investment in one year.Russ Martin is the marketing coordinator for the American-European Real Estate group; visit www.american-european.net to see more than 500 properties in Costa Rica and Panama.