Yelp! When social media goes bad with sabotage


joe's cyberpostThis interesting posting by Steve Olenski, ?With Social Media, Honesty is Always the Best Policy,? discusses how is battling businesses seeking to game the system with positive reviews. Olenski reports how a jeweler, trying to keep pace with bigger-budget competitors who apparently were buying positive reviews, decided to follow the model and induce the reviews with $200 compensation offers. This backfired ? because when Yelp finds out, it posts the evidence and lets everyone know.

Fair enough. The game of ?gaming? reviews has gone on for ages, but Olenski adds a few paragraphs, which have touched a very raw personal nerve:

Myle Ott, a doctoral candidate in computer science at Cornell who has researched the rates of deception across various review communities, including Yelp, told the?New York?Times that public notices were a warning that businesses might well heed.

?My intuition is that public shaming would increase the risk and therefore the cost of posting fake reviews, which could reduce the prevalence,? he said.

But he also had what he called a ?more sinister? thought:

?What?s to stop someone from going and soliciting fake positive reviews for a competitor?s restaurant, in order for them to be publicly shamed??

Wow. Now that would be diabolical to the nth degree to knowingly take the time to seek out fake positive reviews of a competitor?s business then turn around and report them to Yelp or whatever review site in question. all for the sake of publicly humiliating them?

Yeah, that would be evil with a capital E.

Ouch. Setting things up so you are falsely set up as trying to cheat the system . . . could this really happen?

Yes, and alas, I?ve experienced this sort of sabotage twice in my life, both when really bad guys tried to take me out.

In the first instance, back in 2005, I received a suprise Christmas Eve gift ? hundreds of email bounces within minutes. I quickly figured out what had happened. Earlier in the year, I outed an Internet scam, operated by the improbable couple ?Midas? and ?Touch,? who promised to turn $49.00 investments into $1 million returns. The story seems unvelievable, but it seems hundreds and possibly thousands fell for the scheme, at least until I tracked down and exposed the real ?Midas? and the actual owner of his ?anonymous? Internet Service Provider.

Well, the bad guys sought to retaliate. Forging my identity, they set me up to be a truly evil spammer, and timed it for a day they thought I might be away from the computer. The word for this sort of scheme is a ?Joe Job? (named after a real ?Joe? ? the first reported victim of this sort of sabotage.

I survived, because I quickly contacted the poor Christmas eve/day technical support guy at my ISP, then small enough to have a real technical support person answering the phone. I warned him he would soon receive a surge of complaints and provided enough background for him to check out the story. My account survived, but when we returned from Christmas vacation, we found a few dozen complaining phone messages. Fortunately, as well, my business then didn?t depend that much on a great online reputation, so the losses were more in inconvenience than any financial hardship.

In the second sabotage incident, an angry disabled Google AdSense publisher tried to set things up so that I would appear to be cheating the program by generating invalid clicks, lining my pockets until Google?s bots could catch up and permanently disable my account.

Here, I went through two weeks of hell, before getting the trouble-maker to stop. This one backfired on the bad guy because I took measures so effective that a senior Google employee asked me to post my story on the company?s help forums to help others in the same situation. When the bots caught up with the sabotage and disabled my account, I turned out to be the one-in-a-100,000 person with direct email access to Google staff, who quickly reversed their computer?s decisions, restored my account, and invited me to be one of approximately 400 ?Top Contributors? (effectively help forum moderators) worldwide. That status resulted in an all-expenses paid visit to Mountain View last September, a sweet reward for standing up to evil.

Of course, these stories suggest that, while bad guys can try sabotage, if you really aren?t bad, and have enough courage or arrogance to tangle with evil forces, you can emerge relatively unscathed. Nevertheless, be vigilent, especially when you travel in murky waters at the edge of Internet ethics.

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