How can social networks stop the scams? (and the abusive posts)

If you’re a member of LinkedIn, you’ve probably seen it.   Someone offering you a great job or freelance offer that seemed to fit just what you wanted.

Perhaps you’ve even fallen for one or two scams, but don’t want to admit it.  Although there were pyramid schemes and other frauds in the days before the World Wide Web was really world wide, we vaguely remember that “they”, the scam artists, used to wear shady trench coats and hang out in dark alleys.

Today, however, “they” wear trendy clothes and hang out in mainstream networking groups.

So, there’s a tradeoff for wanting to do business with people from across the world on your laptop “while wearing your pyjamas.”  You don’t really know who you are communicating with.  Who knows, that smart looking young recruiter could actually be that same shady old man in a trench coat.  Hey, for all we know, he could be working in that same dodgy dark alleyway.

Well, here’s a reality check for you.  I was around before 2003, and I remember life back then.  I was approached by people selling fake watches, and sometimes they’d be clean cut, young, and professional looking.

There were MLM companies who pretended to have “jobs”, and many of these advertised in mainstream newspapers.  Some of us who didn’t want to work in sales, we just wanted some cash for our hard work but were deceived by the advertisement.  No, instead of a real job they told us to sell second rate water filters (and overpriced vitamin supplements) to our friends and relatives.

Those weren’t the scams though, and you soon learned to recognise them.  Earn money in your free time meant MLM sales, or at best envelop stuffing.  The advertisements might have been deceptive, but where they lies?

The social networking scams are worse than those in the old days, right?  Not always.  A lot of the “scams” actually say what they do on the tin.  You pay 50 dollars, and you get a list of writing jobs.  The list may not be what you wanted, and you may not be qualified to write medical copy or to translate from Albanian, but many deceived writers didn’t bother reading the description before taking the credit card out of the wallet.

(Note:  If someone pretends to have a job when they really have something to sell, that’s dishonest, online or off. )

Some scammers are online.  There are people out there trying to steal your identity.  There are others just out to take you for a ride by selling false software.  Recently two brothers from the UK tricked Americans out of millions pretending to have software that tracks the stock market.

These clever scammers aren’t always easy to spot, and it can take the authorities years to catch up with them.  Many of them work with or through respectable companies, from real estate to financial planning.  However, they usually have some kind of glamour angle.  Flattery, dream jobs, dream holidays and dream homes can fool people with false hope.

Social Media is very glamorous right now.  The smart scammers probably know that.  They know that many people want to work from home, be without a boss, go to the shop at noon, or whatever.  The expert scam artists don’t play on gullibility, they play on desire.

Now, some might think that social networking itself is an elaborate scam, or at best some kind of pyramid scheme.  Those who run the networks get rich.  A few who know how to manipulate it see smaller returns.  The majority of participants merely provide free content that brings more advertising revenue to the big boss, with the hope of some kind of small career advancement as a reward.

Yet we all know what we mean when we say scammers.  We mean those people who pretend to have a job, but are really trying to sell us something.  We mean those who pretend to be helpful, but really have a hustle.

Street smarts and the ability to read “body language” and “voice tone” can’t always help here.  These people have read the same bad-advice blogs on how to detect a liar at work as we have.  They have the time to rehearse their answers, to check for typos, and sharpen their act to look “genuine”.

They have other warning signs, like they don’t want to give their physical address out to the world, but don’t other users have the same misgivings?

A one person writing business owner who works from home might not want everyone to know where she lives.  A small media company in an incubator might not be planning to stay there long, and so be reluctant to share an address that will soon be obsolete.  An artist might never have enough money to own his own place, and so might have to move every few years as the landlords decide to sell.  Then there is the wildlife photographer, or the seminar speaker, who travels most of the year and can’t be found at the office.

All of these may use a virtual office, but then so might a scammer.  All of these might have some legitimate reasons to remain partially anonymous, or at least not to give a physical address, and may benefit from the same kinds of services that help scammers remain anonymous.

It seems that there are more of these kinds of legit businesses today than there used to be.  So, how can social media companies find them?

Keeping the scammers out with filters.

Social networks could create filters on who can join.  Here are some filtering systems that have been tried.

1. limit membership to those who already know someone within the network.  The problem with this is it stunts the growth of the social network, so most social networks will abandon this filter for membership within their “beta” or secondary testing period.

2. Limit the service to users with a credit card.  If your social network charges for a service, it’s harder for users to be anonymous, but not impossible.  Anyone who has purchased software more than once on eBay has probably purchased some pirated software, or even malware.  You’ll find that the sellers of this software often disappear, despite having a valid paypal account.  Until enough users are willing to pay to join social networks, this option will not be viable.

3.  Pay moderators to moderate content.  This is not free.  The expenses involved would hit large companies more than small ones, as small companies tend to know their content creators personally anyway.  That’s why big Internet companies (especially social media companies) opposed the recent intellectual property laws in the US, it would eat into their profit margins.    Some organisations brag about keeping costs down by not paying people.  They don’t outsource or use cheap labor, instead they just wait for their users to moderate content for free.  So they employ nobody to moderate content.  This option of hiring a large number of moderators will probably not be implemented unless governments force the social media giants to take more responsibility for their content.

4.  Create electronic algorithms which detect abusive content.  This option has met some opposition in the press.  It’s not very effective, as any scammer who could be caught by a computer would have difficulty fooling even the most gullible user.  Also, the algorithms involved could end up discriminating against certain regional accents, or people with learning disabilities.  However, LinkedIn and others do make use of Catchphas and a few other small programs which may limit some of the worse kinds of spam, and at least keep out a few annoying repetitive messages.

5.  Ask users to contribute and moderate content.  This is what is currently being used.  You can join a LinkedIn group that’s fully moderated, and wait a day or two for your post to go live.  Another option is to join a restricted group that applies some of the above filters.  Or, you can take your chances with another group that lets anyone post anything.

6.  Act on complaints, after the breach of rules.  This is related to letting users moderate the service.  The problem is, how quickly do you respond, and how in depth do you look at a comment or question before it is censored?  If every complaint resulted in automatic deletion of a post, then anybody could censor opinions they disagreed with.  A scammer could easily abuse this to censor all those who were onto the scam.  If, however, every complaint were examined in minute detail and quick and fair decisions were made, it would cost a lot of money.  So, the social media company needs to find a happy medium.

7.  Moderate a representative sample of comments.  This is kind of like skimming a book.  You can chose comments at random, and moderate those.  This can involve having a small team of employees scan new profiles, and throw out anything that looks obvious.  They can occasionally search for common terms, like video or opportunity or writing, and check every third or tenth message to see if it is abusive or a scam in any way.

There are other options being tried all the time, but I think I’ve covered some of the most effective and common methods of quality control of content.  Got any more ideas?