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The State of the Internet 2016: The Age of the Scam

Nov 24th, 2016

The State of the Internet 2016: The Age of the Scam

In the wake of what will undisputedly go down in history as the most contentious, cruel and vicious election campaign ever, even the most gullible user meanwhile has been confronted with the harsh reality of “Fake News (Sites)”.

Websites purporting incorrect headlines, soundbites, and other (politically) charged content had become a refuge for the desperate, disillusioned answer-seeking members of the public on both sides of the aisle.

It got so bad that Google and Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg announced they will be excluding known fake news sites from their advertising programs (to cut off the funding and revenue for these sites).

I’m not talking about official “Satire Sites” like The Onion or the accidental factual error in an article. This is about crude, plain, completely made-up stuff.
While fake, made-up news is not new*, the permanent availability of Social Media lends imaginary credibility to them and helps spread them like wildfires.
* A fake news story (Jimmy’s World) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Not everything on the internet is true? No Way!

Buzzfeed News reported that fake election news stories outperformed real news before the election on facebook (8.7 M engagements vs 7.3 M engagements).

Take into account that according to a study by Pew Research earlier this year 62% (!) of US adults get their news from/via Social Media: It’s on facebook, so it has to be true.

Truth on the Internet bonjour

(Remember this commercial?)

The amount of misinformation out there and the attention these stories are attracting is mind-boggling.
Add to this the modern Social Media consumers’ relentless desire for more of the same; the borderline addictive need to share, like and comment, generally without even reading the content or – God, forbid! – fact-checking anything, it cannot be a surprise that some saw the potential to monetize this behavior.

Can You Spot the Fake?

For someone who has been working with, in and within the Internet for 20 (!) years, it usually isn’t too hard to spot a fake.

Fake News Site cnn-com-de-logoI am familiar with the real URLs and domain names of “reputable” news outlets, so dismissing abcnews.com.co or cnn.com.de as non-reputable (to say the least) is easy.

Fake News Site abcnews-com-co

For the untrained eye this is a lot harder – as most of the sites are
1) using very common names (ABC News, CNN, etc) as part of their URLs and
2) frequently copy the original site’s look & feel to a T
Others are using strong and trustworthy-sounding names in their mastheads and/or logos (EndingTheFed, etc), as another way to create the illusion of legitimacy and trust.
Another way to spot a fake: The rather “strange” or eclectic selection of ad choices on these sites

Why go through all this effort? The effort of creating the website, spinning the (mostly incorrect and sometimes inflammatory) content? Why then spend even more time to post it all repeatedly on every Social Media channel out there? And why do I call this a scam?
Because like any other scam – there’s money to be made.

So… What’s in a Scam?

I’m going out a limb saying that by now I assume everybody has heard of the Nigerian (419) scam. Yes? Good. If not, get off the internet now!

The Advance-Fee-Scam

It’s the mother of all scams; and much to my surprise, it’s still around. What is way more disturbing is the fact that people are still (still!!!) falling for it.
I remember the first time I was “targeted” – it was in the mid 90s and the good news arrived via fax at my office. Imagine my joy when I found out I was related to a mega-wealthy Nigerian prince! Well, besides the fact that I have a higher chance of being related to space aliens ;)

One variation of this scam preys on people who are down on their luck, people who are looking for work and sometimes are grasping at straws.
Via Craigslist ad or other outlets they promise exceptional and newly discovered income opportunities, a wonderful and prosperous life, perpetual sunshine or make some other ridiculous claim; yet they always have one thing in common: They all require the victim to send varying amounts of money to the scammer first before the secret system, the formula or the sunshine is released.

Phishing Emails (Password/Credentials Stealing Scam)

Other meanwhile better-known scams include any kind of phishing emails claiming to be from your bank, your credit card company, Paypal, FedEx, or the IRS.
While you might have signed up to get notifications from your bank or your credit card company, always check where that link they want you to click on is leading you (by hovering over it without clicking), and if the website or the address of the website looks any different (even slightly!) than what you’re used to seeing, pick up the phone and call them instead.
BTW, the IRS will not (at least not yet) send you an email threatening to come knocking in 20 minutes if you don’t pay up right away.

Pay Up Now Or… (Official-Looking Payment Due Scam)

Another scam might be a little harder to spot; and we’ve had 2 of our clients within the last week(!) inquiring about it:
Shady companies are sending emails to domain owners, disguising the email as a “domain expiration notice” and of course urging the recipient to “act immediately”.

Most people do not keep track of their once purchased domain’s expiration date; seeing an email with a subject line mentioning their domain name and the words “expiration” or “cancellation” next to it is a very powerful tool, and these scammers know it.

Domain Expiration Notice Email

Domain Expiration Notice Email

Unsecured Credit Card Payment Page

Unsecured Credit Card Payment Page

The body of the email might or might not contain additional information and/or some sort of “disclaimer” stating that the payment is for SEO (or other unrelated or irrelevant) services (in case they do get sued, which is highly unlikely given their geographic location). But who reads the fine print?
Needles to say that payment to any of these companies** does nothing for your domain, your domain’s registration, your website’s SEO, or anything else related to your website.
The only thing that’s almost guaranteed yo happen is that you will see additional charges on your credit card statement. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
** The domains we researched in relation to this scam were registered in China and Turkey.

Sometimes they even send regular letters following a similar format (in a somewhat-official-looking envelope) to registered owner’s address, urging the victims to either send a check or – even worse – return a credit card authorization form.

We saw an interesting variation of the above scam approximately a year ago: A fellow business owner had missed the renewal date for his business license with the Secretary of State which changed his company’s status on their website from “Active” to “Default”.
Since the NV Secretary of State’s business license database is publicly accessible – without any bot trap preventing automated and repeated searching – anybody can search it for businesses whose status are “Default”… And then – you guessed it – send them a letter (or an email) threatening to revoke their license if they don’t pay up (including late fees) immediately.

Conclusion

No matter what clothes they wear: A scam’s goal is always to make money.
In the case of the fake-news websites the idea is to get as many click-throughs to their site as possible, so they can show the ads integrated on the site to as many people as possible which in return translates into bundles of cash for the site’s owner.
The real victims are the advertisers***, since some of these fake news sites generate(d) millions of hits and therefore millions of ad views – for which the advertisers have to foot the bill.
*** Assuming nobody believed the stuff they were actually posting

Most other scams attack your wallet directly and immediately, and sometimes they even cause prolonged misery – in the case of credit card and identity fraud.

Always be vigilant and think twice before you click. And if it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is. Just replace whatever they’re promising with “perpetual sunshine” and see if still makes sense ;)

About the author:

Nina Khoury is a computer scientist, software engineer, data and information junkie and online marketer. She taught at various universities for more than six years and worked on projects for Fortune 500 companies including cisco, Intel and HP.

One Response to “The State of the Internet 2016: The Age of the Scam”

  1. Fake news sites crowd out real news sources and steal their credibility. It makes sense to include them with typical scams. Eventually we’ll see the Nigeria 411 scammers try to take some fake news market share.

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