How I dealt with a problematic forum user

by Martin Reed on 2 July 2008 in Articles

Abusive online forum members

I like to use examples as often as possible when writing about online community development as I feel the best way of learning and being inspired is by reading about what others have done in certain situations. I recently had trouble with a forum user at Just Chat – this article will outline how I dealt with the situation.

The problem

A couple of weeks ago I banned a user who had signed up with a new account that was extremely similar to the username of an existing member. By doing this, the user was obviously trying to assume the identity of someone else in order to stir up trouble within the community. As a result, their account and posts were deleted.

Unfortunately, this action merely encouraged the user who then went on to register another account, this time making abusive references towards existing forum members, then making a lot of posts to get their name ‘out there’.

The ideology of the abusive forum user

It was clear that this person thought that it would take a lot of time for a moderator or administrator to remove each post and then delete their account. As far as they were concerned, as long as they registered a new account at least once per day and posted as often as possible, we would soon be so frustrated with the work created in deleting each post and account that we would give in. Thanks to a great hack from phpBBHacks.com though, this wasn’t the case.

The solution

The Just Chat message boards run the Prune Member Posts hack. This allows me to simply type in a member name, and with one click I can delete every single post that member has made.

After deleting the posts, I would then go into the ‘Ban Control’ section of phpBB and ban the email address they used to register – this meant that in order for them to register again with a new account, they would need to register a new email address.

Finally, their account would be deleted – normally, I simply deactivate the accounts of abusive members, but because the issue with this user was their choice of user name, I had to delete the account in order to prevent it from remaining in the member list.

I could also have used the IP address ban, but I find this tends to be ineffective against most abusers as they are aware of how easy it is to use a proxy and have a continuously changing IP address.

Effort – Just Chat vs Abusive User

Therefore, every time our abusive forum user wanted to come back, he had to go through the process below:

1) Register a brand new email address
2) Register and activate a new account on our forum
3) Make as many posts as possible

For me to take action against this person, I had to do the following:

1) Click once to delete all posts
2) Click once to ban email address
3) Click once to delete account

It is clear to see which process is the easiest; it was always going to end with the problematic user giving up. This is exactly what happened after a few days.

Your thoughts

Have you ever had to deal with a similar situation to this? How do you deal with abusive forum members? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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{ 28 comments }

Content Pays July 3, 2008 at 2:39 am

This is where good paid community software comes in, if I had the same problem in my travel forum (which runs on vBulletin) all I would have to do is go to that users profile and click on find all posts by member and then select all the check boxes one by one or select them with a single click and choose the delete posts option.

Another neat moderation trick that vBulletin has that an admin or a mod can delete all the sent private messages by a user, which is helpful if spammer tries to abuse the pm system.

These were just couple of the reasons why I shifted my forum from phpbb to vBulletin.

Patrick O'Keefe July 3, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Nice! Good write up and thanks for the mention. I use “Post Remover” to much the same effect, as I like that it removes the posts to a private forum so I can keep them for documentation purposes, which helps if you ever need to refer back to the situation or share the data with anyone (like an ISP).

Archie Pennies July 3, 2008 at 5:33 pm

Nice battle plan. Most problematic people give up when things get time consuming. People stop bothering other people when they have to actually do some time consuming stuff just to… bother others. Really Fun Read Martin

Bat July 3, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Exactly right Archie. Most of the time people don’t bother reading such threads anyway. The abuser does it for attention, just the way abusive users do in the chat forums. If no one takes a blind bit of notice, they go away and play with their toys somewhere else.
This is just the kind of thing I like to read Martin……………..Just Chat…..1 Abusive gonk………0. Brilliant. ;) ;)

Nicole Price July 4, 2008 at 6:04 am

Gosh i had no idea that forum members could be that persistent! What would he gain from it though, from being disruptive and obnoxious? Anyway i’m glad you sorted the guy out in the end.

Dean July 4, 2008 at 6:35 am

I have dealt with a few bad forum posters and ones that even deleting sometimes does not work. We used to manage a local forum with 2000+ members out of a local population of 50,000. Delete a message, delete someone and next thing they are knocking at your door. What is the solution I am not sure, I have tried reason and at the ended even offered other people the modertaion job so they can see what it is like. I find sooner or later the persons angry falters though and they disappear if no one pays them any attention.

Amish Made Furniture July 4, 2008 at 11:25 am

While I don’t run a forum and do not need to moderate, your tactics makes sense when I come across abusive members suddenly disappearing form those that I visit. Good informative post. Thanks.

Mr Woc July 4, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Hi there

I have had this happen a few times, i use vbulletin which is very powerful when it comes to stuff like this.

The best thing about vbulletin is that when a user is banned it still lets them log into their account, but they cant do anything, this confuses the user and they usually give up.

I also make sure people have to verify their account before they can post, so as Martin said in his post, this means the user has to register with a new email address. I have found this the best way to do things and I get very little spam and few problems now ive got a system for handling abuse.

You can also delete user posts very easy on vbulletin, blacklist email address and ip addresses.

I dont often delete accounts as this gives the user the opportunity to re-register.

Woc

Gemma July 4, 2008 at 11:39 pm

Our forum hasn’t attracted any trolls – yet. Good advice, many thanks!

Koala Bears July 7, 2008 at 7:16 pm

I am a moderator, at a decently popular forum, one of the recent problems we have had on our forum, is users that have been creating two new accounts. The first user would “ask” a question, and then the next user would answer the question, and always with a link to another website. Offcourse both users were the same users. And their first posts made.

Hamurabi July 9, 2008 at 2:04 pm

Hi there. but if you remove this guys comments and the day after he can get a new account and this chain can go on forever. Isnt it possible to ban this users IP ?

Lake Tahoe Ski July 9, 2008 at 2:56 pm

That’s good to know reharding the phpbb hack. I am a forum admin as well but the forum being very new (11 members so far) I haven’t had any problems. Some people have nothing better to do, incredible.

Gerard July 10, 2008 at 6:09 pm

I use Simple Machines Forum, Martin, so the pruning of posts is equally as simple. Banning users takes a bit more work, but the extra step I sometimes take is to notify the person as to why they’ve been banned.

I remember on one occassion our forum became the focus of an organised group of trolls who signed up for multiple accounts and started posting gibberish. Took quite a while to clean up the aftermath because of the volume of posts and accounts, but I eventually tracked the attack down to a group on a free running forum and complained to the moderators.

Bat July 10, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Hamurabi yes you can ban a users IP but as Martin rightly pointed out, sometimes this is ineffective because users can use a proxy server which changes their IP rapidly, OR, they may just have a very dynamic IP anyway. AOL is a very good example of this. So Martins way of doing thing is really the best way, because they do have to go to an awful lot of trouble to sign up again, etc etc. In the end they decided it,s not worth the effort and give up.
Banning an IP is far easier if the abusive user is on cable for example. Often their IP is static. This worked very well with one abusive gonk we had. He was banned from the chat forums for about 3 weeks!!

TigerTom July 11, 2008 at 7:46 pm

BanDeleteIgnore. Works for me. No point wasting emotional energy on it.

HostV July 12, 2008 at 7:03 am

I had the same problem in my travel forum (which runs on vBulletin) all I would have to do is go to that users profile and click on find all posts by member and then select all the check boxes one by one or select them with a single click and choose the delete posts option.

Fredrick July 14, 2008 at 5:42 pm

When I started my internet career and many ventures, I though that forums are pretty good to interact with users. After a few months I came to a decision and delete all forums and installed wordpress blogs. As per your article and my personal experience, it is easy to delete posts, ban users, and delete their accounts but it takes a lot of time. There is a huge difference between a spam attack and problematic user though.

Eva White July 15, 2008 at 8:12 am

Good for you. Some people just don’t know when they should give up.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 17, 2008 at 12:47 am

Content Pays – I have heard great things about vBulletin and may give it a try one day. At the moment though, I am perfectly happy with phpBB as it is free and comes with all the features I currently need.

Patrick – Thanks for mentioning Post Remover; I will have to check it out. You make a good point about the benefits of hiding but keeping abusive content should it need to be referred to at a later dat.

Archie – The harder and more inconvenient you make it for someone to cause trouble in your forum, the quicker they will give in. It basically comes down to being a battle of the wills!

Bat – Exactly; most abusers behave that way because they crave attention. If their content is removed before it can be responded to, they will soon lost interest.

Nicole – Yup, some troublemakers can be extremely persistent. It sometimes makes me wonder just what that person could achieve if they only set their mind to something productive rather than dedicating their time to causing trouble in an online community!

Dean – If you have clear site rules, your members cannot complain if you take action when they break them. Perhaps in your situation it would help if moderators were a little more anonymous to prevent disgruntled members knocking on their doors!

Amish – I am glad you have seen the effectiveness of this kind of approach.

Mr Woc – Allowing users to login but not be able to use features may confuse some users, but not your serial troublemakers – they will know exactly what has happened! Like you, I tend to avoid deleting accounts as this makes it easier for the abusive member to re-register and further develop their reputation.

Gemma – I am sure they’ll turn up eventually! I am glad you found the article useful – perhaps it will come in useful in the future.

Koala – I would consider this a form of spam, and would consequently warn or take further action against such users. Unfortunately spammers will crawl out of the woodwork as a forum becomes more popular, and is something you need to ensure you keep on top of.

Hamurabi – Banning a user’s IP isn’t always effective. They may have a dynamic IP address or use proxy servers. As a result it is often far more effective to make it increasingly inconvenient for the abusive member to gain access to the forum and post.

Tahoe – It pays to be prepared; you may want to install the hack as a preventative measure so if trouble does strike, you are well prepared!

Gerard – I always recommend communicating with members that are causing your problems. After all, they may simply not understand the rules or etiquette of your community. When it comes to serial troublemakers though, I take action without wasting time on further, fruitless communication.

TigerTom – You’re right, you shouldn’t waste any emotional energy on such users. You should simply take the necessary action, and move on. Regardless of how often they come back and try to cause trouble.

HostV – If you delete posts without informing the member, you risk the issue cropping up again. It is far better to speak to the member so they are aware that what they are doing is wrong. I only take rudimentary action against members without any communication once they become serial troublemakers.

Frederick – It’s a shame you felt the need to delete all your forums; I don’t think blogs are any more immune to abusive users than forums are.

Eva – You can say that again!

JArthur July 21, 2008 at 8:54 pm

I am not a moderator but am part of several moderated online boards. Most of the members have the utmost respect for the mods–it can be an exhausting job with little thanks.

The biggest problem is giving the trolls/abusers any form of acknowledgment. That gives them the attention they crave and a reason to keep coming back for more. If they get their accounts deleted per your tactics and no one gives them the time of day, they almost always grow tired and move on.

Of course, then you have the joyous occasions when they sign up under two different names and argue with “each other.” Yeah, some people have FAR too much time on their hands.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 23, 2008 at 3:57 pm

JArthur – I agree with you; being a moderator is a tough job and rarely results in many thank-yous. The less attention abusive users get within your community, the less of a problem they will be. Oh, and yes – arguments between one person are something I have witnessed. I do worry about the sanity of some people!

Presona July 25, 2008 at 10:38 am

I haven’t found any forums which is free from these problematic user. No matter how strong the forum is or how strict the rules are. They just do their job.

Bat August 3, 2008 at 8:36 am

JArthur you make so much sense. That is exactly the right attitude. It,s hard to convince users in the chat forums to adopt that attitude though. They have an ignore feature, but will they use it? Thing is, many people moan to me and other staff about abusive users, but half the time they are just as bad as the absuive user, because they argue back.

We did use to have a user who would “double sign in” and then start rows, claiming to be two different people!

On Just Chat we have this wondeful “gag” feature. I actually prefer to use that rather than eject people, because I find it amusing to picture them sitting there, hammering away on their keyboard, hurling all this abuse, and no one takes a blind bit of notice. Eventually the silly gonk gets bored with the lack of attention/response and leaves.

And yes, some people do indeed have far too much time on their hands. It amazes me the lengths some people will go too to get attention.

I currently have a user who does his best to wind me up every time he comes in. I sit there and chat and don,t take a blind bit of notice of him. I don,t eject him because that would do two things: It would show him that I,m paying attention to him(which is the last thing I want) and by ejecting him, it would give him the impression he has “got to me”.

So I just leave him on gag sitting there wittering away to himself and eventually he gets bored and goes away to play with his toys somewhere else. That, in my opinion is FAR more effective than ejecting him. Some people eh? ,)

Oh and incidentally, the abusive user who posted all over the boards hasn,t reapeared,so Martins tactics do work. Just Chat 1, abusive gonk 0. Shame. ,)

Smiley August 3, 2008 at 11:24 pm

I must admit, problematic users is where my old self seeps out into my nicey nicey persona.

The other night we had someone from above mentioned site in mine (DOA) – it seems someone is a tad jealous after seeing the chat full (after months of posting on above mentioned boards that it’ll never go anywhere). Abusing, being a general tit – luckily he can’t scroll because if you type too fast it locks the ‘send’ function.

Usually he’d have gotten booted.. then he’d have come back 2 minutes later, and he would do that all night as he’s a child and gets off on the attention.

Instead I just sat there out-witting him at every insult. Not only did the users show support for me by their usual ‘lols’ and such, taking the thunder away from him – in the end he just said ” this I’m bored” and left to return to JC.

A calm approach works better than booting a lot of the time. If they insult you, just turn it into a joke. It’s not fun insulting someone who can’t be insulted.. they leave. And you and your users get a laugh out of it at the same time. Bonus.

Bat August 4, 2008 at 8:04 am

Actually Tommy I have to say, that doa is actually being fairly good lately. I havn,t had a single complaint about him for ages. He used to be an absolute pain in the rear end, as you know, and he really enjoyed that, because it gave him attention. Now he hardly ever comes in, and when he does he doesn,t abuse anyone, well not that I,ve heard anyway.

I just think there comes a point where even for someone like him, it MUST get boring doing the same old thing all the time. The novelty has to wear off after a while doesn,t it?

There are actually quite a few of the “old” abusers who I never see any more. They arn,t “boot on sight” any more, so I think that has taken the fun out of it for them. When they were, they had to resort to using allsorts of different user names (all of which I have written down) ;) to hide from me. Now they don,t need to bother because they arn,t going to get booted, (well not unless I,m feeling evil) ;)

Martin Reed - Blog Author August 4, 2008 at 8:20 pm

Presona – Smaller online communities typically have fewer trouble makers since they are easier to moderate and there are not as many different personalities; the more personalities you have, the higher the risk of a clash!

Bat – Ignoring abusive users (as long as the action isn’t detrimental to the community) is nearly always the best course of action. No attention = no gratification = bored user = goodbye user.

Smiley – Yup, this can be an effective tactic but it takes more effort and could backfire if users feeling you are ‘bullying’ another user or being less professional than they may otherwise expect.

Smiley August 6, 2008 at 5:47 pm

You don’t see him cos he’s always causing havoc at FC lol !!

Well I am careful when using that tactic. It’s more of a.. “brushing insults off” thing. Such as, we have a picture-drawing facility and Mr. DOA drew a picture of a certain part of the male anatomy and put “<– Smiley” next to it.. rather than booting I simply said “I’m a rocket ship?” – I got the lols, he got bored.. left.

I reckon gagging & ignoring works a lot more than booting. The only time I use the ban button really is for perverts/sexual harassment.

kritinia February 10, 2009 at 10:50 am

just an advice, that most of us do, anyways…

ALWAYS tell the reason of BAN.
warnings work better if you show that all you care is your community and you dont mind giving him a chance to become a member of this community!