Warning: Social networks are a haven for spammers and scammers

by Martin Reed on 22 January 2008 in Articles

Social networks spam and scammer problem

Online communities are a hugely important part of the online experience. I have no doubt that their importance will continue to grow as people look to harness the power of the Internet to chat with friends, network and find new people with similar interests. Advertisers will also become more attracted to social networks and other online communities as their importance grows.

As a result of this growth, more and more social networks are appearing online. If you decide to set one up, you need to be aware of one of the major potential pitfalls: social networks are highly attractive to spammers and scammers.

Social networks: My definition

I define a social network as any type of membership based site that exists to bring people together. The Just Chat email penpals section falls within this category – users register, fill out a profile and then search for and correspond with other members.

Social networks: The attraction to spammers and scammers

These social networks are a highly prized target for spammers and scammers because of the potential number of people they can gain access to. Unlike spam email lists which can be full of fake or no longer used addresses, a spammer or scammer can be pretty confident that the majority of accounts within a social network are linked to real people who will read their messages. Indeed, many social networks display information on when a user last logged in – this allows such undesirable users to only target those who are clearly genuine, active members of the community.

Almost all social networks are free to join – therefore the spammers and scammers need not make any investment other than their time in order to gain access to a site’s database of members. They simply sign up, and start sending messages to members.

How to combat spammers and scammers

Unfortunately there is no 100% fool-proof way of combating such users – not that I know of, anyway! To prevent such users affecting the Just Chat epals section, I take the following action:

  • Every single new profile is manually approved before a user can gain access
  • A limit is placed on the number of messages that can be sent each day
  • Warnings against spammers and scammers appear prominently around the internal mail section
  • Clear safety advice is provided, along with information on how to report undesirable members

Why you need to combat spammers and scammers

Manually approving or declining every single email penpals account is certainly a chore, however it is currently a necessary one. I would estimate that on average, around a third of all new accounts are set up by spammers and Nigerian 419 scammers. I am now pretty good at spotting these and cannot remember the last time a user contacted me to report such a member.

By keeping the epals database relatively free of such users, it makes the section far more pleasant for my users. Members do not want to be bombarded with spam and potential scams every day – if they are, they will soon leave the site never to return. One message every now and again may be accepted, as long as the member is aware that once they report the incident, immediate action will be taken. Once it becomes a regular occurrence however, you can kiss that member goodbye.

As an online community developer, you have an obligation to keep your members safe. Nigerian 419 scammers are no joke – on occasion they are successful at robbing people for every penny they have, and have been known to use violence to achieve their goals. You need to educate your members about such people, and the potential dangers of meeting people they only know online in real life. Similarly, you need to advise your members to never reveal personal information and to report any members that ask for such information to you immediately.

A spam free community is a happy community

Before establishing your own social network, you need to be aware that it will be a target for spammers and scammers. By being aware of this, you can draw up an action-plan on how you will combat them. A community that is harbouring such undesirable members will struggle to be successful, and your reputation will be at risk. If you don’t have a spam and scam-free community, you cannot expect to retain members.

Do you run a social network? How do you deal with spammers and scammers? Share your thoughts, opinions and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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Sue @ TameBay January 22, 2008 at 1:51 pm

When we were running PHPBB2, this mod
cut our spam members from dozens a day to zero. Registering members have to choose the kittens from a selection of pictures of kittens and cars. New members thought it was funny, and it absolutely killed the spam.

Amish Made Furniture January 22, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Your post and Sue’s comment make great reading. I have personal knowledge of a Nigerian spammer victim who has not recovered from the disaster even after three years. That said, I am getting quite wary of all the social networks and have stopped visiting any. Not because of any negative development but, there are just too many and I keep getting invited to join new ones. How many can one really visit regulary? The community that I am interested in and which is interested in me relies on the good old fashioned email/yahoogroups way to keep in touch and informed. More than satisfying.

Colon Cleansing January 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm

I couldn’t agree more. I am very active on social bookmarking sites such as digg, mixx and stumbleupon, and pretty much 3 out of 5 submits are from sort of spammer.

It’s almost getting out of hand. But I just make sure I bury it down or give it a thumbs down, and move along! The sad part, is that the internet will never be spam free. No matter what captcha phrases you include or spam protection… It’s gonna happen. And that really sucks!

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 28, 2008 at 11:56 am

Sue – I love the inventive way you have helped combat spam. Doing so with a sense of humour further develops your community’s personality and helps you come across as more approachable and friendly.

Ramana – You’re right, there are a huge number of social networks out there to choose from and people are finding they need to limit themselves to just a few. This is why social networks that cater to a niche audience will become ever-more popular in the future.

Colon – The Internet will never be spam free, but in this case it is more about ensuring we do all we can as site owners to reduce spam and scammers that prey on the uneducated and vulnerable.

Michael Schmidt January 28, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Spammers on social media are definately a problem. But take a look at digg, I think their new voting system implemented since a week or so is actually a step forward to filtering out submissions made only for marketing purposes. Hopefully other social websites will follow.

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 30, 2008 at 2:01 pm

Michael – This article was referring primarily to social networks rather than social media sites. Spam is always going to be a problem online, though. While digg should be applauded for attempting to reduce spam submissions, it’s only a matter of time before their new safeguards are beaten.

Weight Loss Wand February 2, 2008 at 6:25 am

Thank you for the information about spammers and scammers. I will use the guidelines given by you while accessing any social networking site.Something should be done to stop this.

Ernesto February 3, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Just when I thought spammers and scammers are encountered only on emails, it is such an unfortunate thing that they have extended their ill-doings on social networks. Good thing you provided great advises on this post on how to deal with them.

Martin Reed - Blog Author February 5, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Weight – Just use the same guidelines in the online world as you would offline, and you’ll be fine.

Ernesto – Spammers and scammers will use any opportunity they can to gain access to fresh victims. People just need to be aware of the risks and avoid revealing personal information to those they meet online.

Roman June 9, 2008 at 9:39 pm

You wont believe but I erased my accounts from two the most popular russian social networks – odnoklasniki and vkontakte. The thing is that not only spammers and viruses get throught the accounts but it takes much time to be involved in network life, and for the second, many my ex-girlfriends found me and tried contact me. Horror..

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 11:53 pm

Roman – Wow, ex-girlfriends stalking you?!? I don’t blame you for leaving those social networks!

ben leefield September 25, 2008 at 11:55 am

We have just launched a Global Address Book with People Search which enables people to be contacted by anyone without revealing their contact details (ie email) and without the person doing the contacting having to be registered. Unfortunately, as we are now growing, we seem to have come to the attention of the unpleasant folk you have referred to in this article. It probably seems naive, but we never thought that these people would message our users in a manual fashion (the only way possible) as it is such hard work for little reward. However, having had a few reports of it over the last couple of days, there are clearly some people out there with too much time on their hands, so we are now in the process of implementing preventitive programs on our messaging system.

What was particularly interesting though was that, although these naughty folk were clearly West African with the usual storylines, their IP addresses were originating out of Germany, Sweden and the UK.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 6, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Ben – I have definitely noticed a pattern of IP addresses not being sourced from Africa but still being used by African scammers. Ah, the joy of web based proxies, eh?

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