New Digital Spam: How Bad Guys Try to Trick You; How to Avoid the Traps

Google+

I like to use Google+ because many of the posts I see there are more relevant to me than the ones I get on Facebook, which can be clogged up with people I haven't spoken to in 20 years posting every 5 minutes about what they just ate for lunch.

I like to put people in Google+ Circles if they have me in one of theirs, as long as they've invested a few minutes in creating an actual profile, complete with a photograph and some information about their interests and what they do for a living.

A few times I've accidentally put someone with an empty page into a circle and then gotten messages from them asking me if I want to chat (I do not). And because most of my posts on Google+ are public, I occasionally get a visit from some flamethrower bent on trying to drag me down into his pit of misery. While I certainly welcome thoughtful, courteous, and constructive feedback, I consider insulting, disrespectful, and scurrilous remarks from strangers to be forms of spam.

I'm not alone. Tech pundit MG Siegler recently caused quite a stir when he shut off all comments to his popular blog, saying that 99 percent of the comments were bile. And BGR.com recently said that ITworld soon would do the same. "I'm tired of reading nonsense and of interacting with people that solely troll this site just to get a rise out of other commenters and start a holy war in the comments section," wrote Jonathan S. Geller, BGR's editor-in-chief.

Advice: Be careful about who you include in your Google+ circles.

Twitter

Twitter
Twitter is rife with spam, predominantly in connection with phishing scams. You get a direct message something along these lines: "I saw a real bad blog about you. You seen this? [URL]." If you click on the URL, it takes you to what appears to be a Twitter sign-on page. This is where a bad guy hopes you will give him your password. If you do, the scammer accesses your account and spams all of your followers with direct messages in hopes of getting their passwords as well.

If you use Twitter, be very suspicious of direct messages that ask you to click a link--or any link that promises something too good to be true, such as thousands of new followers overnight.

In addition to seeking your passwords, bad guys are interested in getting your mobile phone number and other bits of personal information. Hackers who obtain this data can sell it to various buyers, including identity thieves, organized crime rings, spammers, and botnet operators--all of whom will try to use the data to make even more money.

Advice: Anytime you're directed to a sign-in page, look at the address bar closely. Twitter's address should look like this: https://twitter.com/. If even one letter is off, you are not at the real site. And if you accidentally fall for this ploy, change your Twitter password right away (and change your password on any other site where you use the same password). Also scan your computer with up-to-date antivirus software to see whether the fake site infected it with malware.

Sockpuppet Spam

Hashtag
Hashtag symbol

A sockpuppet is an online identity for someone who doesn't exist. Fake identities of this type have been around for a while, and marketers use them to promote products or sabotage competitors via comments that they make in these fake people's names online.

A leaked email message last year indicated that computer security firm HBGary might be working on creating an army of sockpuppets under the control of just a few people, who would use sophisticated software to automate posts on social media sites, blogs, and forums.

One concern (among many) is that these sockpuppets might create the illusion of consensus on issues that are actually controversial. The illusion of consensus can be a powerful persuader and might turn public opinion on important issues despite being imaginary.

Advice: I'm not sure what can be done about this; but it's important to be aware that, just because someone has a robust online presence and just tweeted a hashtag about the conference he's attending, that doesn't mean the person is real.

Content Farms

Yahoo Voices
Content farms are huge news sites that use headlines, keywords, and other tricks to lure people to their online territory, where they get paid by advertisers--either for page-view numbers or for ad clicks by page visitors. Visitors to these sites are usually disappointed, however, because the writing they find tends to be poor and generally neither useful nor informative.

Google became fed up with how successfully these content farms were gaming search results. As a result, about a year ago, the search giant significantly altered its ranking algorithm in a way that affected about 12 percent of all queries. The move effectively undercut the rankings of content from low-quality sites and strengthened the rankings of content from sites that produce original material distilled from research, along with in-depth reports and thoughtful analysis.

Since then, many companies affected by the change have changed their ways. For example, Yahoo cleaned up Associated Content, a massive content-farm site that it acquired in 2010, by deleting more than 75,000 articles, moving stories that it deemed worthy of keeping to Yahoo's domain, and renaming the site Yahoo Voices. Yahoo also has said that it will offer its writers an online training course to help them create higher-quality content.

Advice: If you still find low-quality news reporting to be a problem, consider obtaining your news from a mobile device and installing an app such as Google Currents, which delivers only news from highly reputable publications, including PCWorld.com.

Next: Evil QR codes, junk apps, and more

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