Protect Yourself From Online Scammers, Swindlers, and Slanderers

There's been a lot of talk about the FTC and various other government agencies clamping down on deceptive advertising online. The main focus seems to be on the new rules regarding testimonials, which we covered a few issues back, and the need for proper disclosure by various people acting as paid "reviewers."

Those topics are important, certainly. There are others that don't get talked about as much, but which are just as potentially troublesome. They deal more with making good decisions and protecting your reputation than with making sales.

Unless you've been at this game a long time, you might be surprised at the traps that are waiting for you out there. Especially if you somehow become a "target" for one of the Internet's lower life forms.

At the end of the article, I point out how many of these potential problems can be made worse if you ignore the early recommendations.

Let's take a look at some of the pits you can fall into, starting with one many of us see every day...

"Give a Man a Phish..."

=====================

A phish is a mix of (usually simple) technology and social engineering to get you to reveal information that can be used to steal your identity or gain access to an online account.

The usual way you get these is via an email alleging to be from some well-known company with which you may have an account. It may claim that there have been problems which require that you log in and correct information. Or it can tell you about charges you didn't make for products being sent to someone else's address. The one thing they all have in common is that they involve you clicking on a link and logging into a site.

Once you do that, they've got you. They have the user information and password they need to do whatever they want with your account.

Not the best way to start a day.

....

Quick... What domain does this URL link to?

http://www.example.com.doLogin.custsrv.info?update.me

What did you say?

If you said example.com, you flunked. The phisher is in ur account, eating all ur moniez.

The actual domain in that one is custsrv.info

Now, how about this one?

http://www.example-svc.com/doLogin.custsrv.info

If you said example-svc.com, you're right. But what if it said paypal-svc.com instead? Would you consider that safe? If so, you lose again.

Sluuurp.

....

If you read email in HTML format, you may even see the real company's URL in the visible text, and not notice that the underlying link actually leads to a different site altogether.

If you get emails claiming to be from Paypal, eBay, Amazon, your bank, Google or Yahoo's pay per click systems, or pretty much any other system where you have money in an account or a credit card associated with it, do not click on links in those emails.

Log-in by typing in the URL you know works, not the one in the email. For example, you'd log into Paypal by typing in https://www.paypal.com, not any other URL.

If the email talks about security problems, you can usually ignore it. If you're not sure, grab an account statement that you got from them via postal mail, and call the number in that statement.

This subject is way too extensive to cover properly in this newsletter and get anything else done. I recommend that you Google the word 'phish' and do some reading on the subject.

Don't get hooked.

"In My (mumble) Opinion"
======================

The practice of posting positive reviews of a product by fake customers is as old as electronic communication. Before that, we had shills at auctions and carnivals, and in pretty much every other kind of sales process.

A while back, I pointed to this Dilbert comic in a discussion of ways that people abused forums:

http://www.dilbert.com/fast/2009-02-01/

Maria Lasilla sent me a link (thank you!) to a less humorous article in the New York Times, which mentions a cosmetic surgery firm that settled a case with the state of New York for $300,000 for doing just that: Getting employees to post fake reviews.

You can read about that one here:

http://nytimes.com/2009/07/15/technology/internet/15lift.html

Fun stuff, eh?

....

The games don't stop at posting glowing fiction. It's not uncommon to see hatchet jobs done on perfectly good companies by their competition.

Along with this, some of the so-called "scam reporting" sites have been accused of even sleazier tactics. One is alleged to have posted and/or solicited lies about various companies and charged the companies for removal or rebuttal of the fraudulent claims.

To get an idea of how bad this can get, check out the comments about RipOffReport.com at http://www.reportsripoff.com

No matter which one you believe, one of those two sites (at least) is engaged in a pretty involved scam.

On the flip side, there are some useful sites that can help you, and which are solid and fact-based. They tend not to accept random accusations from anonymous reporters, though.

One really good place to learn about online scams is run by a couple of old friends, Jim and Audri Lanford, at...

http://scambusters.org

Who ya gonna call?

....

To add further to the confusion, it's become quite common for people in this business to recommend creating "review sites," and suggesting that the site creator choose high-converting products to recommend.

Some of the people suggesting this will be careful to tell you to only review honestly. Others outright endorse saying whatever is needed to sell the product being reviewed, regardless of the quality of the thing.

Consider the context and the reviewer before putting too much faith in their comments. Too many of these sites exist for the sole purpose of making the sale, with no concern about the value the customer gets afterward.

....

Then there are the "flogs." Faux blogs, purporting to tell the story of how someone used one or another product and got amazing results. They very frequently use IP-locating scripts, which let them insert the name of your town, or one near it, as the home of the alleged blogger.

A common tip that you're looking at a flog is a sequence of positive comments or hopeful questions, ending with the statement that further comments have been disabled due to spamming.

....

A variant on this is the piece that's designed to look like a news report about a product, often using the same "your town" trick. It will say, "As seen on" and name a number of credible news sources. It will go on to extol the virtues of the product, in a format that sounds somewhat like a folksy "human interest" story.

Ask yourself: How often does your newspaper do a story like that and start it off with "As seen on AOL, CNN, the New York Times," etc?

As the gecko would say, "Come on, people."

If it looks like an ad, assume it's an ad.

"In His Opinion"
==============

One of my favorite targets for scorn is the site with fake testimonials. These are so common that, unless you can verify the testimonials yourself, you should just ignore them.

Yes, that probably sounds like strange advice, coming from a copywriter. Still, it's probably safer than believing them. Even if they're true, they probably don't have much to do with your situation.

I'd also recommend disregarding any and all screen shots alleging to show proof of income. Way too many are faked. It's really easy to do.

Even if they are real, and many are, they're irrelevant. You don't know all the factors that went into making whatever amounts are shown.

As the old saying goes, "Your mileage may vary."

"Clean Out Your Sock Drawer"
==========================

Chuckie was evil, but he had nothing on sock puppets.

A "sock puppet," in Internet terms, is a user account created for purposes of deception, most often in a discussion forum or chat room.

They are commonly seen adding to the illusion of support for the controller's position in a discussion, bashing or praising a person or product, or to provide cover for what amounts to an anonymous complaint or attack.

They can also be used to start a conversation, allowing the controller to step in and steer it in the direction they wanted, without looking like they're responsible.

In the time I've been moderating electronic forums, I've seen a lot of these critters. They're getting sneakier now, to avoid the ability of most forum software to track the IP addresses of posters. That's given rise to a different kind of sock puppet, called the "ghost poster." This is someone who is paid to post according to instructions from the controller.

These can be positive presences in a group, but that's very rare. In virtually every case I've seen, they're hired to create the illusion of an independent presence, to be later used for profit or abuse through deception.

Here's a little more humor on the subject, from one of my favorite web comics.

http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons/?id=20070729

Xandros, indeed!

....

Sock puppets are, for the most part, only a problem if you believe them. The simple solution is to discount any claims that seem a bit too convenient, unless you know the person making the claims.

And remember: The number of people who agree with a position has very little to do with whether or not that position is correct.

"Socially Inept"
==============

For a lot of people, social networking sites don't really seem to make much sense. Older surfers (anyone over 40) tend to think of MySpace, and dismiss them all as places for teenagers to chat mindlessly and indulge their exhibitionist tendencies.

The whole social media thing just doesn't seem to offer anything but another way to spend precious time.

Even if you believe that, there are good reasons to create profiles on them. I'm not going to get into using them to make money or find prospects in this issue. There are plenty of other people ready to explain that to you.

The one overriding reason to create a profile, even if you never plan to use it, is simple: To keep someone else from pretending to be you on those sites.

The simplest reason someone might use your name or company name on a social networking site is to get traffic from folks looking for you. This would most often be your competition.

Another potential problem could come from someone creating a profile in your name and using it to do things that would damage you or your reputation. An irate customer, an angry ex, or even just some random nitwit who thinks it's fun to screw with people, is all it takes.

You don't need to try and cover every possible spelling or common term someone might use to search for you. Your personal name or your business name (depending on the site) should be enough. If your personal name is common, like mine is, just make sure you have a profile on each of the major sites in some variation of it, and include your URL in the profile.

As long as you have a presence, you can easily answer people who ask about others that sound like you.

I recommend having profiles on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. There are dozens of others, but these are the big ones.

"Master of Someone Else's Domain"
===============================

This one should be a no-brainer, but a surprising number of people miss it:

Register the .com version of your business name, if it's not already taken.

I don't care if you currently have no plans at all of ever doing anything online. The opportunities for people to mess with your business by grabbing the domain are too big to leave out there to save a few bucks a year.

If it's taken by a business with the same name in another town, you can skip this. Or, get something that includes the name and the town, like, "FredsBank-NY.com."

I would also recommend grabbing a generic form, along the lines of "profession-town" or "town-profession." For example, "SanDiegoRealEstate.com" or "PlumberInPawtucket.com."

Just don't grab one that's the same as the name of another local business, even if it's generic. While that may be tempting, it can also create problems you don't want.

It's also sleazy, for those who care about such things.

"The Poisoned Pen"
================

Here's where things get weird, and where you see why it's a good idea to do some of the things I mentioned earlier, even if you have no plans to do anything online or to get actively involved on the social networking sites.

A while back, someone posted a "press release" on one of the free press release sites, accusing me of being involved in scamming people. The thing was very poorly written, and was made sillier in that it named as one of my "victims" a person with whom I am known to get along very well.

It mentioned the Warrior Forum, so I just went there and posted a link to it, with a simple comment that it was lame.

Why would I advertise a page that accused me of criminal activity?

Hang on. We'll get to that.

....

Remember a while back when a Google search for the phrase "miserable failure" would show George W. Bush's official White House bio page as the top link?

That was a simple thing to arrange. All it took was for a lot of people to link to that page, using "miserable failure" as the anchor (clickable) text. It wasn't hard to get a lot of bloggers to join in, and that makes it fairly quick. Search engines, especially Google, give a lot of weight to links from regularly updated and popular blogs.

Manipulating search results with a co-ordinated effort and large numbers of links that way is called "Google bombing."

When you're talking about relatively uncommon search terms, it doesn't take much to rank high for them. Sometimes as little as one or two well-placed links with the right anchor text will do it.

In short, it's not hard to poison the search engine results for most local or specialized terms.

....

Let's see how some of the other stuff plays into the potential for this.

If someone grabs the domain version of your business name, it's pretty much a done deal. They can rank your name in combination with almost any terms they want, and say whatever they like on the resulting page.

If they don't have the domain name, they can easily put up a page on a free blog, social networking system or other site and link to that. A few posts in the right kinds of discussion forums, a link on a blog or two, and you're "branded."

Keep in mind that it's not necessary that they have the number one position on the search engine if they can grab attention with a sensational title in positions 2 through 5.

It isn't really even necessary that a trouble-maker understand what they're doing in order for them to create serious problems for you this way. Just that they use the same link text a few times, pointing to their gripe page.

The problem there is that nutcases, like politicians, tend to say the same thing, in the same way, over and over and over again.

Ain't that fun?

....

If you participate in forums, you need to understand something about sock puppets: As they become more experienced, they learn a few tricks. And they get nasty when they're exposed. That's what prompted the idiot I mentioned earlier to post the fake press release about me.

If you don't know how to handle them and their tricks, you're better off leaving them to people who've dealt with their type before. The lone twit isn't usually much of a concern, but some of these folks act in groups.

For example, there are a few people from one IM forum who seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction by wasting time creating trouble for various members of the Warriors. This kind of linking trick is one of their favorites. And, with a bunch of experienced online marketers involved, that can be very effective, very quickly.

One of their idle pastimes is to link a "target" to the kind of videos that most businesses don't want associated with their names...

These guys need hobbies.

....

This is another area where social networking profiles are useful. They fill spaces on the search engine results pages (SERPs) when someone looks for you online. That helps to keep casual complaints or stupid comments in discussion boards and blogs from being the first thing someone sees if they go looking for you in a search engine.

It won't stop a determined Google bombing, but profiles from these sites get decent rankings, and can make even that a bit harder.

Being listed in the social networking sites I mentioned also shows that you are at least aware of new media, which says something positive to a lot of consumers.

While you're at it, go to http://local.google.com and get your business listed with them. It's free, doesn't take long, and helps when people go looking for someone in your area and line of business. And those results show _above_ the regular listings.

That stuff shouldn't take a whole afternoon to get done. It can save you significant hassles, along with possibly increasing your sales and building a more extensive network of contacts.

Do it this weekend, if you haven't already.

....

Now back to why I actively pointed people to the fake "press release" accusing me of various unsavory things.

I know the guy was trying to link my name to that stuff in the search engines. He wasn't going to be able to rank for it with just that posting, as there are a ton of links to me and some other guys with the same first and last names. So, that part was a non-issue.

The effort itself was useful as an example for showing people some important things. First, making them aware of this kind of "attack," and what it could do. Along with that is the idea that you should not freak out or get defensive when some random nutball starts foaming at the keyboard.

Remember: Breathing is Good.

The title of the thread was "Look, Ma... I'm a scammer!" Other than including the link, my only comment in the first post was, "This would be funny if it wasn't so lame."

It really was lame, by the way. The guy's spelling and grammar are atrocious (yet he claims to be a professional writer.) He lost track of who he was accusing at one point. And he quoted someone I'm known to like and respect as a "victim" of my alleged fraud.

One thing you'll notice about these types of people, should you have occasion to have to deal with them: They're usually not all that bright.

Anyway...

The big lesson in that example comes from the fact that I am already a known quantity in the group where all this happened. Yes, some people posted that the accusations might be true. They were new to the group, and were immediately told by the folks who've been there a while that it was just someone who was torqued at me over what he sees as forum politics.

Because I was already known to them, I didn't need to defend or explain myself. That left me free to make the points I wanted to make about that kind of prank, without needing to get distracted with the silliness of the thing.

That lowered the chances of someone doing the same thing to another member of the group. The guy who posted that particular one got no joy from it, certainly, so he's likely to try something else next time around. (He'll be back. He's petty, obsessive and has no life. He can't control it.)

It was a fairly heavily viewed thread, with many of the more active members participating. Some people with less than honest motives will see that the tactic can backfire in a big way, and avoid it. The active members will know better how to deal with similar things in the future.

These are the kinds of advantages you can build for yourself by developing a reputation in your market before you need it.

A good reputation will do more than help you make sales or find people to work with. It is the best way to protect you and your business from the digital roaches that wander the web.

This may not seem like it would matter if you don't plan to do business online. That would be a dangerous assumption if your customers, prospects and business associates use the Internet.

If you have an online business presence, this is something to be very aware of. You can keep an eye out for people talking about you, your business or your products by setting up a few automatic searches at http://www.google.com/alerts

One trick I've found handy is to test the search terms you use for your alerts in the main Google search box first. That way you can see which ones bring up the most relevant results, which will keep you from getting a ton of useless notices that take up a lot of time.

Then just let it run. Let Google do the work. If they find anything that fits, they'll email you.

Sometimes automation really is a good thing.

....

Enough for the moment. Take a few minutes this weekend and create those profiles. You may also want to do some vanity surfing (type your name or company name into a search engine) to see if there's anything being said about you that you should know.

....

Back to the blatant commercialism for a moment...

One really good way to develop a reputation in your market is to sell them stuff that helps them get more of what they want. And that's time spent that makes you money, rather than costing it. Grab a copy of my latest manual to see just how easy that is to do...

http://talkbiz.com/r/empires.php?page=1

Paul Myers is the editor of Talkbiz, where this article first appeared. Subscribe (and get his powerful 112-page Internet success e-book) at http://talkbiz.com


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