WARNING: BEWARE OF GEEKS ARMED WITH WEB SITES

WARNING: BEWARE OF GEEKS ARMED WITH WEB SITES

Preparing for the exciting world of online transportation auctions? While you're at it, put a healthy dose of skepticism in there too.

There's hasn't been a sector of business more likely to attract the use of overblown claims and fly-by-night operators since the boom in quack doctors in the Old West.Internet startup companies are a strange breed. In the ideal scenario, some guy in Seattle pauses one morning while checking the mirror to see if he has enough facial hair for a mustache. Suddenly he comes up with a great idea that no one's thought of before.

He pays to reserve the SlicedBread.com domain name on the Internet and puts up a Web site that clearly explains his product offering.

Then the sheer brilliance and singularity of his idea naturally attracts hordes of eager customers, causing SlicedBread.com to become a genuinely worthwhile business concern that grows at breakneck pace until it's either bought up by Bill Gates or launched as a multimillion-dollar public company.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this (unless you're a fuddy-duddy and disapprove of 18-year-old kids driving around in Lamborghini sports cars).

But unfortunately, the transport sector appears to have attracted a number of startup dudes whose idea of researching this venerable and complex industry appears to be taking a couple of jet-skis out in the Bay to discuss corporate strategy.

Analysts, carriers and shippers alike are discovering that many transport dot-com companies lack the gravitas and prior knowledge one might expect from a transport-services business, whether it's got a dot-com after it or not.

For instance, an article in a Web-based news service recently announced the launch of an international ''reverse'' auction Internet service (which shall remain nameless) where businesses could access thousands of requests for proposals from a global selection of businesses in a dizzying range of sectors, including air, sea, truck and rail transportation.

Scouring the company's Web site, I finally found a contact telephone number and dialed it. The phone rang and rang and rang.

Finally, a rather bemused-sounding man picked up at the other end and explained that he shared an office with ''someone . . . I guess it might be that company.'' However, the person who was supposed to answer the phone at that desk wasn't around, and he said he couldn't help me any further.

Then there's the time I called to speak to a company that advertises itself as a service with an online method of negotiating freight rates. Pretty specialized stuff, right?

Upon calling the advertised number, I got what sounded like a residential answering-machine message. Well, that is to say, it offered to take a message for . . . let's call them Nick and Andy. It didn't mention anything about being an international transport and logistics live-auction company.

Assuming I'd misdialed, I called back a bit later. This time, either Nick or Andy answered the phone. I said: ''I'm terribly sorry, I probably have the wrong number, but I'm looking for John Doe of BookABigShipNow.com.''

Nick or Andy became all flushed-sounding.

''Oh yeah,'' he said, trying hard not to sound as if he'd been caught smoking behind the bicycle sheds by a grown-up. ''Mr. Doe's not here right now, but I can contact him.''

Five minutes later, Doe called me from the cellphone on his bicycle. I questioned him about the telephone number given out on the Web site and the answering-machine message that was curiously coy about its role as portal to a global Internet transport company.

''Oh yeah, uhh - that's my - uhhh, CFO, actually,'' he said, trying to make it sound convincing. ''Hang on, I'm having trouble with my trainer wheels . . . ''

Later on, I checked the number through a rather nifty little service called www.anywho.com that allows you to tap in a number and comes up with the name and address that belongs to it. The BookABigShipNow.com number was at a residential address in a Big Apple suburb. Somebody's Dad is going to be upset when he gets the phone bill.

I don't know where these guys come from or what attracts them to the transportation sector. Internet auctions for regular folk have been hot for a while, and I suppose some guys who missed that boat thought they could catch another wave in the business-to-business transportation scenario without doing too much homework.

That's not to say every transport startup on the Internet is full of hot cyber air; there are valid, promising operations out there. But some of the seat-of-the-pants startups might as well try to set up a service offering brain-surgery advice over the phone.

It takes many years of experience to understand the needs of transportation buyers and transportation sellers. If the transport dot-com market is ever going to move beyond the narrow spot-market position, it will need a great many more players who are serious about what they are doing, and about what they know.

In the meantime, those of you who are thinking of using them need to be extra careful to check the pedigree of the company that's panting for your business.

Don't be fooled by wide ties and big talk. Respectable and worthwhile transport dot-com companies do exist. But while the market goes through its wild birthing dance, it's up to you to be sure you're dealing with the Real Thing.