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by Mike Essex on 31st May 2011
From malware to spam emails, the number of ways to scam people online is growing everyday. It’s an area that’s been covered in depth on multiple occasions, with many articles explaining step by step exactly how spammers succeed. Which begs the question, does talking about spammers only encourage more people to do it?
Issue 266 of Webuser magazine has an in-depth look at ten different web scams. It explains how each one works and how people can protect themselves. It’s a great article, and anyone who reads it will be better protected, but what about those who read the article with malicious intent? They can look at a tactic, read how it’s done and then decide to enter this shady world.
It’s the same thought that went through my mind when I wrote “are eBooks the new content farms“. The only way I could bring the issues to light was to explain how scammers use these techniques to catch people out. But at the same time was I inadvertently advertising these methods to scammers in training?
This was taken one step further in an experiment by the International Computer Science Institute who hijacked a spam bot to see how many potential sales they could get. They sent out spam emails where people could place an order which wouldn’t be charged. Their findings were shared online, showing that they would have made $7,000 a day had they charged people’s cards.
But that’s the problem. Anyone looking to send spam emails who wants proof that it still works is being told for certain that they can make money by conning people. It’s validates the need for them to go out and use this type of trickery. For the industry it’s an interesting insight, but if we play devil’s advocate it’s easy to see how the information can in the wrong hands be manipulated.
Then there was the Distilled Link Building Seminar which had two presentations on how to use black hat SEO tactics in a positive way. This didn’t stop people looking at the negative way to use the tactics which led to a big debate (see Black Hat SEO: Friend or Foe). The tactics were really useful if used in a positive light, as most attendees would, but there’s no guarantee that there wouldn’t be a single bad apple who left and used the tactics in a bad way.
There’s 23 million Google results for “how to create Malware”. Plus it doesn’t take long to find sites talking about every possible con. Form a Techni infogaraphic with 3 reasons why it’s easy to take advantage of people on online dating sites to a guide on manipulating the stock market? Don’t get me started on the ‘make money online’ websites that exist, or the “Mom makes $999 dollars a day” adverts on the net.
These are all guides that unintentionally show you scams and how to do them. In 2009 Wired ran a piece on Demand Media and their content farm. Two years later there was so much bad content farm rubbish that Google had to issue the Panda update just to regain some control over the search engine results.
The main problem is when these articles look at scam artists without offering any information on how customers can protect themselves. Thankfully the Web User article avoids this problem as every scam is listed next to a solution for customers. If every article on a scam includes a counterpoint on customer protection it helps people fight back and restores some of the balance.
In addition we’ve also got to factor in the articles that fight back. Wired have helped expose a content farm. No one reading the article would then go on to set up a content farm as it doesn’t glorify it in any way. That’s why the International Computer Science Institute is bad. It glorifies the process of being a scam artist. They could have used the opportunity to list new ways for customers to protect themselves based on their time using a spambot, but instead it was more of a guide on how to make it work. That wouldn’t have been their intent, but it’s clear information now out there for all to see.
The key then is balance. For every article that talks about how / why scammers do something, there needs to be another article explaining how they get caught, or catching them out. If scams are talked about, there should always be some protection information for the wider public. As long as we can protect more customers for each new scammer created then this is a step in the right direction.
People need to not be afraid to talk about scams, but it’s important they do this in a non positive way (even if unintentional). Something as simple as saying “I was conned out of £1,000 by an Amazon scammer”, can be enough for a scam artist to then try and manipulate the site. Even talking about the spam experiment now, gives it further exposure, so it’s something of a lose lose situation. All we can hope then is that brands continue to protect us, and that the more we talk about these problems, the smarter customers get and the more scared scammers get.