State of the Internet: Filled With Fraud

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In the last year, I wrote about government interference in the internet, and corporate interference of the internet, but there is another group that has to be acknowledged, the users themselves who often use illegal means to make money online.  This group is decentralized and located all over the world.  The internet is filled with fraud.

Advertising Fraud

Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist.

Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.”

Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.

Increasingly sophisticated scam artists are stealing millions from advertisers trying to get the word out to legitimate potential customers, whose ads are actually going to robots pretending to be interested customers.

According to New York Magazine where the above quote came from, about 40% of users on the internet are bots using a number of different schemes to steal advertising revenue.

It is not just malware, it is legitimate apps doing it too.

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Amazon Fraud

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

Amazon is far from the only tech company that, having annexed a vast sphere of human activity, finds itself in the position of having to govern it. But Amazon is the only platform that has a $175 billion prize pool tempting people to game it, and the company must constantly implement new rules and penalties, which in turn, become tools for new abuses, which require yet more rules to police. The evolution of its moderation system has been hyper-charged. While Mark Zuckerberg mused recently that Facebook might need an analog to the Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes and hear appeals, Amazon already has something like a judicial system — one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.

A recent article on The Verge called “Prime and Punishment” documented the cut throat underbelly of fraudsters undermining legitimate businesses using any tactics they can to get to the top of the search results.

For example, people used to buy five star reviews to get high on the search results, but then Amazon started deleting accounts that paid for five star reviews, so now some merchants are buying five star reviews for their competitors, then reporting their competitors and getting their competitors kicked off of Amazon. Read the full article for other dirty tricks.

This reminds me of the craziness that occasionally happened in Second Life‘s virtual marketplace for virtual items.  Every week new drama emerged on the forums of a new fraud attack. It comes with the territory of online sales.

But Amazon has become so big, they need more than just automated processes to settle billions of disputes.  It is making the worlds largest shopping site completely untrustworthy.

One could make the case that these are individuals using the site to be fraudulent to others, not the fault of Amazon.  But Amazon is far from faultless when it comes to being honest in business.  Just look at their underhanded fleecing of government in the “headquarters 2” debacle.  It’s like they are encouraging fraud.

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App Fraud

The last week there were headlines about a version of the Facebook app that monitored everything you do on the phone.  They paid teens $20 a month to use it.  This violated Apple’s terms of service, prompting Apple to block Facebook’s enterprise license, deactivating all beta versions of Facebook app being used internally.

But it is not just Facebook, a day later Apple did it to Google as well.

In both cases these license revocations only affected beta versions of apps that might be released in the future, not the popular apps used by most people.  Apple determined that both companies were distributing these beta apps outside the company, and that is what triggered the terms of service locks.

Meanwhile, it seems every few weeks there are articles like this one about popular apps that do a lot more than what they are supposed to be doing.

Fraud seems to show up a lot in the app stores.  If you search for “Messenger” thinking you will get Facebook Messenger, you will likely get instead one of a number of ad filled message monitoring apps that will cause unwanted pop up ads all over the place.

You know those Flashlight apps?  You don’t need them. You can turn on a flashlight on your phone very easy without an app.  Ditto apps with Q code and bar code readers. Your phone’s camera does that automatically without an app.  Then there are popular religious apps with bible quotes.  All of these are filled with ads.

Worst are “free” security apps like software cleaners and virus protection and “anti hacking” apps.  If you are not paying for a service, your phone is being flooded with ads.  These will hack your home screen and are sometimes very difficult to remove.

While I am on the topic, let me point out the fraud of “Freemium” games that Facebook was illegally pushing on minors at their parents expense.  Gaming fraud deserves a post all its own.

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Millions Lost

These are three areas where the internet has become the wild west.  It seems there is no software to protect yourself from fraudsters that isn’t itself also a fraud.  Promises of easy money online are just that: promises.

Want another example? Here is an article about defrauding kickstarter campaigns by publishing articles “for a fee”.  I wouldn’t be surprised if similar scam artists are defrauding gofundme pages of people trying to fund life saving medical treatments.

For every person who has gotten rich off the internet there are dozens that have lost.  It’s like in the movie Ready Player One, where if you kill a player, you collect all their gold, and the dead player has to start over at square one.  It’s a very good metaphor for internet based businesses today.

It seems that everyone has a scam to sell, and the internet has grown so thick with these scams that many actually support government and corporate take over to get rid of it.  Then only the big boys will make money online, and the economic hopes of the internet will be lost.

I’ve already lost hope that the internet would be the Great Equalizer that was promised. I suspect that what we will see is the continuous rise and fall of internet based empires.  If you want to play in this environment, my best advice is to watch your back.

How Google Plus became “Uncool”

You would think that a company worth half a trillion dollars would take their reputation a little more seriously.  Apparently Google is unaware that its latest “social network” offering Google Plus has become the most hated social network ever.  Today admitting that you have a Google Plus account is as bad as admitting you had an aol.com account back in the 90’s.  It has become the symbol of the brazen corporatization of the social internet.  Negative press is coming from major publications and from across the blogosphere.  What is amazing to see is that Google’s reaction to all this negative press is to stick to their guns and make matters worse.

The principle reason for all this negativity can be explained with one made up word: Nymwars.

Google Plus started on June 23rd, and was by invitation only.  Apparently someone at Google saw The Social Network and decided to follow the creed that “exclusivity creates demand”, so they limited the number of people that could join Google Plus, and somehow ended up with 25 Million within a month.  That to me sounded fishy right away.

Then came the Nymwars, Google started booting out people with funny names on suspicion that they were “fake”.  Google demands that all users of Google Plus use their real legal names or go somewhere else.  Being someone who goes by four different names (my legal name being my least used) this debate over “What is a real name?” has been very surreal one.  To me, Google is acting like a narrow minded bigot who thinks all sex is hetero and in the missionary position.  There are lots of different kinds of names.  I am someone who never goes by my legal name, and it is extremely helpful, because anyone who calls or writes to me using my real legal name is instantly someone who I don’t want to deal with. Friends, family, and even all my financials are all under another name.  At work I go by a nickname, a variation of my legal name, that everyone uses for brevity.  Finally everyone online knows me as Ariane, or ArianeB.  I cannot join Google Plus and stay within the rules they prescribe, so I don’t.

People that follow the rules, with foreign names, single word names, and words in their names not normally associated with being names are being unfairly targeted by the Google gestapo demanding, “Papers Please!” in order to get back in.  Their new “Verified” tags are down right embarrassing, and just making the situation worse.  If it was just their stupid social network, nobody would give a damn, but Google is threatening people who don’t comply with termination of all Google based services, some of which people need for their employment.  Such tactics are creating a small but growing movement away from all things Google.

Why is Google doing it?  Why are they threatening their customers on some made up issue?  It is because they think they can get rich off of it. Fake names are not real customers, according to Google.  They want your information, so they can sell it to advertisers.  They are like those ugly naked creatures from Futurama: Bender’s Big Score, who profit off people’s gullability that Google is not evil.

Here is the bottom line.  I work in the tech industry, with lots and lots of fellow computer geeks who are always on the cutting edge of internet culture.  When Google released “exclusive” invitations to Plus, most of the company had invites within days.  Just two months later, and nobody at work is talking about Google Plus anymore.  I can’t find anyone who uses their account, and those of us who do not have accounts, don’t really want them. It is has been shunned as “uncool” by the techie masses.

Google Plus is another flash in the pan idea, from the makers of Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Orkut, and Google Lively.  I’ll admit that Google Plus is built on superior technology and tools than Facebook, and that is what drove initial interest, but cool tech only goes so far.  Reputation is everything, and the quicker Google figures that out the quicker they will dump Google Plus, Google Profiles, and everything else associated with this marketing disaster.

Other Virtual Women

More random notes from around the metaverse…

The Vanity  Google

Ever heard the term “vanity google”?  It’s basically where you google your own name and any online monikers you may use, and it is actually a good idea to do every now and then, especially if you are being cyber bullied.  I tried googling myself (arianeb) and of course I get a lot of links to my website, as well as blogs dedicated to my dating game, and a growing number of walkthroughs.

It is not surprising to find out that I am not the only Ariane B on the planet.  I already knew about Ariane Blanc, a German Ariane B who owns the “Ariane” sim in Second Life. (If you are in the market for virtual furniture, check out her store), but there is also a French Canadian Ariane B.  I run arianeb.com, and I am arianeb on tumblr and wordpress (which you knew from reading this blog), but arianeb on twitter is a Montreal based singer/songwriter.   I’ve listened to some of the stuff she posted online and its pretty good.  I also found out there is a Facebook ArianeB page, which is about me, but I am not the one who created it. Whoever did, needs to update it, and as for the rest of you, I could always use a few more “likes”. 🙂

Other Dating Sims

But the really cool thing I found while googling myself is that there are a growing number of dating sims similar to my own.  Ugo.com recently did a list of Virtual Girlfriends You Can Date of which I am number 5.  Its an entertaining list covering many kinds of virtual dating with virtual girls. Stay away from #4 (3D Girlz) I got a malware warning when I went there.   Another list that had me as an entry is a list of dating sims at playforceone.com (link NSFW due to ads), a list of 36 other dating sim games available online.  A couple I have tried before were not that good, but that still leaves 34 I have not tried.

One other dating sim appeared on both sites called Keely, a dating sim very similar to mine, in that it is written in HTML with a branching storyline, and uses a lot of Poser graphics based on Victoria 3.  I assume that the character is based on British model Keely Hazell.  I have not played too much with Keely, but it has a much more involved storyline, taking place over many days, like the Japanese dating sims do.  Also, you don’t have to arrow around the picture to find the choices, they are usually at the bottom of the page to choose from.  The thing I’m most jealous of is that Keely already has a sequel, and I still have a lot of work to go on my sequel.

The Virtual Popstar

And since we are on the topic of virtual women online, a recent story from Japan gave me a good chuckle.  Virtual pop stars are hot right now in Japan, the most famous one is Hatsune Miku, a manga styled character who’s singing voice is created artificially using a vocalizer, and does concerts using rear projection technology.

But there is a pop band in Japan called AKB48, and they are very popular (the top 10 chart for 2010 in Japan consisted of songs from only two bands AKB48 and Arashi).  It is a band consisting of a choir of cute young teenage Japanese girls, with new young girls being added as older ones leave.

One of the new girls this year was Aimi Eguchi, a 16 year old according to her bio.  She appeared on magazine covers and videos before it was revealed, she does not exist.  Aimi Eguchi was a composite of 6 other members of AKB48, to the shock of many. It was a silly publicity stunt, and the fun only lasted a few days before the secret was revealed, but the idea that fake can pass as real has generated a bit of buzz.

Reminds me of that under appreciated film S1m0ne from 2002.

Is The Sims Online returning too?

I have mentioned a few times that I got my start on the metaverse via The Sims Online, a 2.5 dimension virtual world first released in 2003.  I only lasted 6 months before moving on to There.  Well it looks like a new incarnation of TSO will soon be returning, this time called The Sims Social, and it will be a Facebook App.

All attempts to attach a 3D Virtual World to Facebook have resulted in failure due to incompatibility of purposes.  If any can succeed it would be The Sims, so it will be interesting to see how this goes.