Yes, There’s Fraud Online. Deal With It.

Breaking: everything you see and read on the internet isn’t true.

Hope you were sitting down for that surprising revelation.  I know, I know, it’s not that big a surprise, but that’s why it’s constantly surprising that people are…surprised by it.

A reporter from one of this country’s leading metropolitan dailies contacted me recently about the late-summer revelation from Facebook that some 83 million (or 8.7 percent) of its user accounts are fake. Facebook is, after all, a platform based on the value proposition that its users are behind real identities.

Doesn’t this blow Facebook’s value proposition out of the water, the reporter wanted to know. Isn’t this an incredibly high number of fake accounts? How could they allow this to happen?

Relax. The problem is hardly endemic to Facebook. Fake accounts, whether malicious in nature or not (Facebook estimates only c. 1.5 percent of active accounts are, in fact, malicious – the others are mostly duplicates, users under the age of 13, your dog, etc.) come with the territory – online or off.

Facebook is working to identify and disable fake accounts just as the search engines are working to combat click fraud – for years now. As ISPs work to block oceans of spam.

Oh, and did I mention fake online reviews?  Yelp has resorted to a sting operation aimed at shaming businesses that are caught trying to game their ratings system. They’re posting “consumer alerts” on those businesses’ pages, and exposing the emails they send to hire favorable reviewers. (TripAdvisor is also participating in its own version of the walk of shame.) So widespread is the fake-review practice that Gartner estimates by 2014, 15 percent of all online reviews will be fake.

Companies running online sweepstakes often encounter fraud, fakes and undesirable metrics in short order. A few years back, I looked under the hood of several soft drink sweepstakes aimed at males aged 12 – 24 (Coke, Sprite and Mountain Dew, to name a few of the brands). I asked Hitwise (now Experian Hitwise ) to crunch the data. They clocked the overwhelming majority of entrants as low-income females…over 45. They weren’t clicking on ads, but rather on a link on contest-aggregator site Sweepstakes Advantage.

Blame the Internet – Or Human Nature?

Somehow, when fraudulent, misleading or even unintentional things happen online, “the internet” is to blame. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or the dating site that was a 14 year old girl’s first step into a bad situation – never mind that a 14 year old had no business being on the site in the first place.

No one seems to be stepping back and saying things like, “Contests are overwhelmingly popular with low-income, middle aged women. Is it wise to run a sweepstakes to reach young men? If we do elect to go that route, how can we ensure we reach the target audience?”

Just as retailers account for “shrinkage” in financial forecasts, digital marketers must account for wasted clicks and impressions. Comes with the territory. There’s always going to be clickfraud. Chihuahuas and Yorkies will continue to update their Facebook newsfeeds (or, even further violating Facebook’s TOS, allow others to do this for them.) People who aren’t 100 percent neutral (like maybe the owner’s mother-in-law) will review restaurants and hair salons – favorably or unfavorably, depending.

Offline Corollaries are Much Worse

While the media are quick to blame “the internet” for a multitude of crimes related to fraud, companies like Facebook, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all the major ISPs get little public credit or acknowledgement for their efforts to combat said fraud. Much of the knowledge we have of online misconduct was revealed by these companies themselves. It’s transparency and disclosure.

Not so their offline bretheren. A quick search of “inflated circulation” results in a veritable rogues’ gallery of news stories indicting companies like Time Inc., News Corp, Newsday and other major publishers of being caught in the act – not openly revealing they are combatting a problem.

Forbes recently indicted USA Today for padding hotel bills to the tune of $82 million annually for those unwanted, untouched copies of the newspaper in front of your door in the morning (nearly one million copies per day that you probably don’t read, and probably are billed for).

Online fraud? Yeah. It’s a problem. It will always be a problem. Just like in the real world.

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3 thoughts on “Yes, There’s Fraud Online. Deal With It.

  1. The problem is far worse than your examples. 83m fake accounts at FB isn’t kids and dogs. Many agencies, incl. global ad agencies, have created thousands (and tens of thousands) of fake accounts so they can add Likes, follows, and comments to their clients.

    Look at Twitter. Use http://fakers.statuspeople.com/Fakers/Scores to see how many followers are fake. Many celebrities have 30-40% fake followers. Who created hundreds of thousands of fake accounts that can be bought in blocks of 100,000?

    Go to Google and search for buy fake followers, buy fake Likes, buy fake reviews, buy fake comments. These are all for sale. It’s not kids and dogs.

    There are companies that specialize in creating followers, communities, and conversations. It’s all fake, all computer generated. This is used for many purposes.

    Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. do very little about this. They assure us “it’s under control”, but it’s not.

    It’s a serious threat to marketing. When people begin to realize marketing is swamped with fake content, credibility collapses. It’s like counterfeit money: counterfeit dollars work because people trust real dollars. But when there’s too much fake, people don’t trust the real stuff either.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Andreas. I certainly don’t disagree with any of your points, nor do I advocate fraud in any form. Rather, I feel digital channels are unfairly singled out when egregious forms of fraud in traditional channels are overlooked, or considered “business as usual.”

      I don’t agree that the major platforms you cite are saying fraud is “under control.” Online, fraud is a technological arms race that’s rarely under control. But it can be controlled to a degree – until the next thing comes along.

      Greater transparency seemingly results in greater accountability. That’s a good thing. What is unfair is all digital channels being tarred with the “fraud” brush. Fraud exists everywhere, online and off.

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