Like Whack-a-Mole, new forms of digital spam pop up faster than security software can knock them down--and the problem is just getting worse. In fact, according to search engine newcomer Blekko, 1 million new spam pages are created every hour.
At the outset, let me offer my defininition of spam: any kind of unwanted communication delivered by any unknown source. That's a broader description than many people would make; but much of what's happening online is not only annoying and a waste of time, but also sometimes injurious and costly.
Here are some of the latest forms of digital spam, together with some steps you can take to avoid them.
Fake News Sites
I recently wrote a story that resonated with readers. As I read through and responded to some of their comments, I saw this one:
"my roomates [sic] aunt makes $83/hr on the laptop. She has been without work for 8 months but last month her pay was $8682 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on this site [URL]."
Really? All that money for just a few hours of work?
Sadly, some people actually fall for this spammy scam, click the link, and end up on a fake news site, which lures them to another page. There, if they hand over their name, phone number, and email address, they can gain access to the spammer's "incredible work-at-home opportunity." But you should never offer your personal information to any source you're not absolutely sure can be trusted, because hackers can use it to do all sorts of nefarious things.
The fake news sites, which have titles such as "News 6 News Alerts," falsely indicate that the reports they display have been "seen" on major media outlets, such as CNN, USA Today, and Consumer Reports; in reality the reports are merely ads meant to entice people to buy things.
The FTC recently shut down several groups peddling acai berry weight-loss and colon cleanse products, and informed the public that the reporters or commentators pictured on the sites were fictitious and had not conducted the tests or experienced the results described in the reports. Even the comments posted following the reports were additional advertising content, not independent statements from ordinary people.
Advice: One way that sneaky sellers hook consumers is by offering them free product trials. Remember the old adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." That goes for free trials as well. Most often the fine print about these deals goes unnoticed or unread, increasing the likelihood that the hapless consumers' credit card will get billed or they'll be stuck with a long-term contract if they don't unsubscribe by a certain date.
Clickjacking or Likejacking
Sometimes on Facebook you may see your friends "liking" items that seem questionable--say, your skinny 12-year-old niece touting a diet that helped her lose 10 pounds in two weeks.
The likely explanation is that your niece was the victim of clickjacking (aka likejacking). The scam works like this: Your niece sees that one of her friends has posted a link to the best Justin Bieber video ever. She clicks it--but before she can view the video, she is asked to complete an online survey and share personal information. Or she is taken to an ad to sign up for some kind of service or product.
Code embedded in links she uses then spreads the link to her own Facebook page, making it seem as though she "liked" it. This is all done with the aim of attracting clicks from her friends on the same material.
It's a big problem. Facebook recently filed two separate lawsuits in federal courts in California and Washington state against Delaware-based Adscend Media LLC, a company that officials allege is some of this type of spamming.
Advice: If you've been hit by a scam like this one, remove the messages and the likes from your Facebook page and warn your friends not to click the offending links. Also, keep in mind that clickjacking can happen anywhere on the Web. If a link sounds enticingly shocking or salacious, or contains an offer that seems too good to be true, don't click it.
Facebook Subscribe Feature
Similar to Twitter's "follow" button, the Facebook Subscribe feature allows anyone to read someone else's public posts even if the two people are not friends. Some people are finding the function to be a haven for spam.
The button is meant to create a viral effect by notifying your friends when you subscribe to a person's profile, and it works. Many public figures have opened up their profiles for subscribers to see, including The Travel Channel's Nisha Chittal, who amassed 80,000 subscribers in just six months, compared to the 5000 followers she has on Twitter.
Little did she realize the kinds and amounts of unwanted messages she would get because of Subscribe.
Chittal hoped to connect with a community that shared her passions for travel and social media. Instead, she received sexually explicit messages, pornographic photos, and spam from thousands of users around the world. The New York Daily News reported that she said she was getting messages from random men every few minutes and that "For every one or two legitimate comments, I would get 20 from creepy men who would say weird or strange or sexual things." Bloomberg producer Anne Torres had a similar experience. Both women have since locked down their profiles so strangers can no longer send them messages.
Advice: Consider yourself warned. If you don't want this type of unwelcome oversharing to happen to you, don't let strangers see your posts.
Next: Bad uses of Google+ and Twitter; also Sockpuppets