Friday, November 28, 2014

Reviewing customer feedback online - how trustworthy is it?

I always prefer to give scam advice that gets people thinking about motivations of others as I feel this is what ultimately protects against any scam, although it is not foolproof.  But I decided to write some practical ways of checking if good reviews online are what they say they are.  This list is in no way exhaustive but I thought it may give you some pointers what is good to do before you decide to trust someone/something online. I have already written a post about how feedback on websites can be faked so let’s expand on that across other websites. 

Online recommendations and reviews
Word of mouth is one of the best advertisements one could ever have. I am sure you have heard this one before and with the internet, word of mouth has been transformed into feedback. Often, sites will have options for reviews that customers can leave but how reliable are they?  I generally take online reviews with a pinch of salt.  Some websites are better than others.  Retailers like John Lewis or Ocado fair better at publishing honest reviews because it is in their interest to see if the chosen products sell.  However, this is not foolproof as the manufacturers often have marketing teams that work hard on promoting products and sometimes this means playing dirty – like leaving reviews that are not from ordinary customers.  So what can you do?  Read negative reviews first and then read the positives. Click on the username of people leaving positive reviews.  This is handy as it will show you other reviews they left.  If they just left the reviews for that product or just that brand, disregard it.  You may be disregarding an odd honest review but generally people fall in two categories; those that love leaving reviews – these will have left reviews for other products they bought and those that only leave reviews when they are unhappy. 

If you are reading great reviews on the website that only sells their own brands, think very hard about who gets to choose which reviews go up before you trust them.  What you can do in that case is to reference the product you want to read a review for in Google and other, independent sites will come up.  You will notice that often products that are rated excellent on the original website will be rated lower on sites like Make up Alley or Google reviews.  Always look for independent feedback.

Hiring a good workman
The feedback sites like MyBuilder, Checkatrade, Rated people and so on are extremely popular as they allow customers to see feedback from other customers.  But it pays to be careful despite this.  I found few loopholes that can be abused.  For example, what is stopping any tradesman impersonating a customer?  Or their friends and family leaving a review where details are asked of you before you post a review.  What you can do is click, again, on any usernames that left them feedback and see if they have hired other people from the site.  If they haven’t, disregard that review.  Again, you may make a mistake and disregard the good review but better to be safe than sorry, in my opinion.
Finally, put the name of the company in the Google and really give it a go at looking at everything that pops up. Sometimes information about previous companies they had pops up for free.  If they have had several companies in the past few years, this might be telling you something.  But please remember, information on Companieshouse, for example, is not checked by the government.  I have heard of a case where a scammer set up a fictitious company up there with false details and identities to add to their credibility.  It is good to check stuff like that but also cross reference it.  Often, putting the phone number and the address the person gives in the Google by itself might give you a clue if the information lines up.  If there is a discrepancy, it could be that the person is dishonest or they are hiding something.  I tend to walk away from those.

I will give you a solid example.  Recently someone I know had a bad experience with the dentist overcharging.  Simple Google unearthed a good review by a satisfied customer.  Cross referencing the person leaving the review, I saw that he left a review for all their branches and that he is a website developer by profession (probably hired by them).  He probably did not have dental treatment in all of their 4 branches.  Often, someone who is unhappy with a certain company will discuss it somewhere.  I find that very good information is to be found on Forums too, however, again it is not foolproof.  If someone is gushing about a particular company, check what else they have posted.  Scammers often will do some stuff to add credibility but they don’t have unlimited resources so there will be tell tale signs if you invest the time.

It pays to cross reference things in Google before you decide to trust someone you have never met.  I also cross reference people’s mobile phones.  If I cannot find it online, I am a bit more cautious.  A good tradesman will have a phone number listed somewhere and he will not need to change it.  I also cross reference emails. This is a useful tool to use in Facebook as scammers often have several emails.  If you cross reference the email address in Facebook and someone else pops up, chances are this person is not honest.  It takes a bit of time but it can save you a lost of grief in the long run.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Is lack of time making us vulnerable to scams?

"In my day..." is something I hear a lot of from very old people and the sentence usually ends with something that the very old people had that we as a society no longer have and one of those things is TIME. Time has become a commodity, a resource that many of us just don't have. We now work longer hours, chauffeur our kids to and from numerous parties and activities, keep up with social media and so on. And we commute to and from work.  And despite the fact that we are have less time, the world is getting more complicated.  Once upon a time, you might have come across a skilled scammer, someone who could 'sell ice to Eskimos', someone who would make you buy something for way more money than it was worth.  That scammer had to knock on your door or intercept you somehow to offer you this deal and this was a precarious work for the scammer as they would have to invest their time, which may or may not pay off. 

But now, you only have to log on to your email to encounter numerous scammers that are out to get you in the moment of irrationality, moment of weakness, that moment of wandering attention.  And they don't need to invest a lot of time to do it.  In other words, scammers have managed to cut the time it takes them to scam you and we have less time to evaluate offers and information we are presented with.  If you are buying something online you probably have to wade through lengthy terms and conditions that take an hour to read, generous updates to existing terms and conditions that you have already read and absorbed (such as PayPal updates) so on. Often there is just not enough time and this lack of time makes us vulnerable to scams.  Often, investing just a bit more time into looking for clues of authenticity in an email or a website can make us suspicious.  But time has become like a currency.  Because sometimes it is in short supply, some people report making rational decisions to risk money in certain situations where they are not completely sure that the website is legitimate.  In other words, they feel the time they would have to invest to read all the information out there is not worth the amount they are spending. 

This fact is known to scammers who often inundate their websites with information, making you more likely to engage in peripheral route of processing (skimming rather than reading carefully and thinking about the information). And many keep the amount low enough to make it insignificant to you so you will not spend too much time evaluating the information.  

Often, companies engaging, shall we say in shady or unethical practices, use this tactic. The small print is out there but there is so much to read that it is lost somewhere in other persuasive methods, such as testimonials from people (often fake), shiny graphics and useless scientific data that is rarely followed up by the buyer and often not even correct.  How many of us have the time to Google the ingredients to that slimming product, or that magic anti ageing cream or a miracle cure for cancer?  But if we did invest the time to gain the relevant knowledge, we would find that often this would be enough to save us from being scammed by these companies.  The same goes for real scammers, the people who will take your money and not give you anything for that, i.e. they will just run away with your money, change the website and scam another person tomorrow. 

There is no easy advice here.  Optimally, all of us would be motivated enough to want to read and know as much as we can about things that go on in our lives but sometimes that motivation is just not there.  And time seems to be one reason for that.  But that extra half an hour verifying information you are reading might just save you some money in the end. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why eBay is not doing enough to prevent fraud and why feedback is completely useless

I love eBay like the next shopaholic who gets tired of designer handbags. A friend introduced me to eBay in 2004. I have just split up with my ex who moved out having left lots of DVDs and CDs and quite frankly, Rod Stuart was asking to be sold.  Since then I have eBayed often and apart from being scammed once when buying a phone, I have had a pleasure to deal with some great eBayers.

Before I go into eBay’s reluctance to ‘clean house’ I will acknowledge that they do offer money back, if you paid through PayPal and you get scammed, but quite frankly the fee charged by both companies is steep enough that this is to be expected. However, I don’t think eBay is an honest business and whilst some responsibility falls on ever evolving scams, some of the responsibility falls on how eBay deals with customer complains.

Here is my example. Recently I was selling lots of old stuff and have sold one of my items for a good price. When I went to send an invoice, I noticed that PayPal asked me to recalculate the postage. Upon closer inspection I realised that my buyer was Romanian and I have specified clearly that I do not ship outside UK.  This is bad enough, surely a filter according to shipping could be put in place so that timewasters who clearly don’t read the listings would not be able to bid.  Having raised a case to cancel the transaction, I am still waiting for the buyer to respond. Needless to say that relisting an item is dodgy in itself as it raises red flag over possible shill bidding and thus is often avoided.  And this is what happened to me.

So having looked closely into the buyer’s feedback I find some shocking truths.  Let’s first look at his feedback at the glance.

This person has a score of 45 feedbacks. Looking at the positive feedback, it appears that he has 50 in the last 12 months. Where are the 5 missing feedbacks?

Going deeper into his feedback, they have no feedback as a seller or any feedback left for others. This person’s account was opened in May this year and they already have 45 feedbacks. Now I go into feedback as a buyer. Remember, eBay changed rules about leaving negative feedback for buyers. Initially a good idea as I have heard of cases where bad sellers retaliate and leave negative feedback for paying buyers, this feature is now a hotbed for fraud because it allows inflation of feedback. Even if your buyer has not paid, you cannot leave them negative feedback. So the angry sellers can only leave a positive feedback and use the text box to vent their frustration.

This is the positive feedback of this person as a buyer. Hardly positive.

Needless to say that I have reported this seller when I have not heard from them regarding cancelling of the transaction. Polite automated email from eBay ensued informing me that they may or may not take any action against the person reported. That they carefully balance my feedback with those of other sellers to make a decision.

Well, I have calculated that out of the 50 feedbacks, only roughly about 12 are those of happy sellers and the rest are from people like me, complaining about this person ruining our sales. Also I never quite know if eBay charges me for auctions that end in people like this bidding and not paying. 

Two weeks later, the same person has notched up several more negative-positive feedbacks.  I doubt that eBay reads any reports sent by the customers, and if I am wrong about that, it then beggars belief why they are not doing anything about it. They are openly condoning fraud as well as causing hours of unnecessary nuisance and stress to sellers and buyers. When I became an eBayer, the concept was clean, simple and it had credibility. There was a sense that it is professional, that auctions are binding. Now, it seems that one can pretty much do anything.

As for, as one of the angry sellers eloquently put it in their feedback, Di*#head buyer, it is not hard to guess that this is someone who is expertly building their feedback so they can use it to add credibility to other scams. There is a small chance that they have no clue how to use eBay but in either case, eBay should strive to remove people like this swiftly, making the experience what it once was, a professional business.  Scammers often weigh scams in terms of cost effectiveness, so why is eBay making it so cost effective to use one of their platforms to commit fraud? 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why you should not blindly rely on scam advice found on the internet

Over the course of my research into scams, I have read many interesting journal articles, research done by companies such as Microsoft and large-scale research studies commissioned by the Office of Fair Trading (see links below for these and more).  There are scams warnings advertised on various websites that purport they are experts on scams, calling themselves ‘experienced scam baiters’. I had to laugh a little at that, to be honest, simply because I see no reason, except from wasting time, in scamming a scammer. It might provide light amusement but the laugh is always on those falling for the same scam.  There are scams reported on those websites, emails of scammers exchanged, experiences shared by victims. This is all good, it is important to be aware of different scams out there. It is important to share your experience so that a quick Google search may help someone else but the real trick is to be smarter than a scammer. And I feel scam baiters are just not experienced in providing advice on how to learn to be smarter than a scammer.

So what is my advice?  You need to rely on yourself.  Yes, yourself.  Your intuition, your gut feelings, your intellect. Why?  Because scammers invest time and effort into their craft, coming up with new scams all the time.  And because, despite of all the warnings, forums and help agencies out there, you are pretty much on your own if you get scammed, so it pays to rely on yourself.

Successful scam relies on the element of surprise, something you can’t Google, something that is not flashing up anywhere.  Just have a look at some of the forums, the plethora of scams on offer is both ingenious and deadly.  But let’s first unpick some of the advice given to people on such forums.  
First of all, most users of such forums report scam emails and the name of the scammer who is contacting them. Perhaps they communicated with this person (on a dating website, or just through another type of scam), exchanged details or photographs and want to warn others.  How useful is having the name, email address or even a fake photograph of the scammer?  Not very.  Unless that particular  scammer is not very bright, he or she will have several emails, names and photographs they regularly use for scamming purposes.  Even if you reported all of them, one can get a picture from Google and a hotmail email address in a split second and start again.

What would be better advice, better warning then?  Know your stuff.
Know the background of the scam.  Do check the name of the person who emailed you or whom you are dealing with, but don’t neglect to check the facts of the offer too.   If someone is contacting you out of the blue about a job, ask yourself why?  Unless you are someone with a niche ability or knowledge, or you are a public figure, why would someone be desperate enough to contact you through a site you belong to and offer you an amazing position that pays 4 times more than what you are currently paid.  I am not saying that things like that don’t happen from time to time, but generally if someone is offering a top salary, they are not randomly emailing people they don’t know.  Always think about the reason why you would be the one chosen for this offer.

Have you really won a lottery?
Let’s look at the lottery scams or scams that reach your inbox claiming to be from someone who won several millions and wants to share it with you. Don’t look at the email it came from, instead ask yourself  if you entered any lotteries? If not, you have no chance of winning the lottery.  Or the other type, ‘wealthy lottery winners giving money away’ scam.  What would you do if this was you and you wanted to share the money you won with people. Would you sit at the computer, guessing people’s emails, like a creep, and emailing strangers saying you want to give them money? Or would you choose a charity of your choice and donate the money, or perhaps buy your friends and family presents?

Phishing scams
Have you ever received an email from PayPal that began without using your name?  Such as ‘hello’ or ‘dear friend’ 'dear customer' or simply ‘to whom it may concern’.
Companies sometimes do send general emails but those are rarely about your account being closed down or you going over the overdraft limit.  Whatever companies you regularly use online; Ebay, PayPal, your bank etc. will always have security information.  Read it, familliarise yourself with it.  They often include information on what they will never say in an email, what you should do if you suspect the email not to be genuine and so on. 

‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ scams
Another popular scam is a phone call about your computer. Scammer rings you and tells you there is something wrong with your computer.  Ask yourself; how do they know this?  And even if that is true, what would their motive be for calling you?  Kindness?  Probably not.  Ask them to tell you your name and how they got the information about your computer. This usually leads to them putting the phone down.

In love and war...
The most dangerous scam is a romance scam.  Once you invest your emotions into something, it is hard to pull away and you are likely to enter a state of denial at some stage if you fall in love.  When you are getting to know someone through the medium such as the Internet, you never know who this person is.  Even if they are not out to scam you, they are telling you their version of themselves.  This is the version you may be attracted to but it is also a version that can be very far from reality. This is why it is important to meet.  Meet up as soon as possible.  Meeting a person generates impressions and gut feelings and these are sometimes important in decision-making.  If the person turns you down or can’t meet for whatever reason, and they live in the same town, you should give up on that.  If they say they live across the globe and this is a reason they can’t meet, think carefully what you want out of the dating experience.  If you feel you want to keep a long distance relationship going, keep it light.  Space it out a bit.  A scammer may realize you will not be easy to scam and may move on.  If you like them, instead of giving them money for a plane ticket, offer to visit them instead.  If they say they are fighting in a war torn city at present, ask yourself how come they can spend hours on Skype talking to you when legitimate soldiers cannot contact their families in similar situations, sometimes for weeks.

Whatever happens, just stop to ask why? Analyse the situation, not the email it came from, not the name you were given, analyse if what you were told makes sense, if you would do the same in a similar situation.  Would you ask a practical stranger for money, even if you were stuck somewhere, or would you call your best friend, your mum, your family in general?  Would you, if you had the money,  offer a job paying 4 times the going rate for an au pair to someone you found yourself on a free website? Or would go to a professional au pair agency and ask them to source a candidate that is vetted, reference and police checked in order to get value for your money.  Generally, would you email strangers telling them about your family, your name and surname, names of your children, all in the hope to attract a good au pair?

You get the point. Yet no one is telling you this, at least I have not come across any advice that points in the direction of teaching people to analyse the offers in a rational way, rather than rely on the reported types of scams.  Some scammers are stupid and baiting them is really not such a great skill at all.  You should beware of those scammers that cannot be baited, those that are skilled, witty, educated, those that can spot a victim, adapting themselves to each scam and each victim.  Being one step ahead of a smart scammer is what you should aspire to as this is the only way to protect yourself, unless you give up the Internet.  But even then you are not safe.  What do you do when you get a professional roofer, ringing your doorbell, who just happened to be passing your house when he saw that your roof is in a dangerous state?  Or a an insurance broker with a really good insurance deal for anything you may need, who has no brochures to leave with you, no T&Cs you can read and no good deals on any other day but the day they just happened to be in the neighborhood.  

No one will ever predict all the scams. Scams are evolving fast, they fit the needs, the time, the budget and an emotional state of their victims. It takes a smart person to be a successful scammer.  Don’t underestimate them.  Learn to think critically and pay attention to all the details you are given.  Even that is not foolproof but it is a good start.

Here are some useful links from the real experts

If you have 15 minutes spare, I am currently running a research into scams, please fill my survey.  Click on the survey link below

Friday, April 11, 2014

Trust but verify

Stephen King once said, if internet is to be believed: “ The trust of the innocent is the liar's most useful tool. “
This is, of course, correct.  There is a popular belief out there, that people are gullible because they are too trusting of others.  But trust is very complex.  If we chose to guard ourselves from all the evil things and people in the world by trusting nobody, aren’t we also closing ourselves from the love, the support, the richness of life that relationships bring, and yes perhaps, some pain too but the point is that we close ourselves from life.  

Gullibility and trust are interconnected but not in a way one might think.  Gullibility has been identified as a component of evolution. Children are born gullible in order to survive. They need to be able to trust their parents’ warnings and thus need to be gullible, or if you prefer, naïve. In the olden days, parents didn’t employ nannies and did not have an array of safety features to safeguard their homes, in fact children were often left to tend to themselves. It was imperative that they trust the parents without hesitation in order not to set themselves on fire or drown in the nearby well.

Children are programmed to grow out of this gullibility as they grow up and as they acquire life experience. At some point, every child will ask themselves how come that Santa is able to be in every home on Christmas eve if he is just one man.  I have had experience with children telling me that they go along with the toothfairy story because they think their parents enjoy it… and of course, there is money to be made.

Trust is not just a part of the interpersonal relationships but exists in business too. If you come across as very sceptical and very untrusting, people will generally think you are paranoid and unpleasant to be around.  Also research has shown that those that trust others are less, rather than more gullible.  Studies have found that people who are more trusting are also better at predicting the behaviour of others. This is because trusting others opens up opportunities to gain experience in dealing with others and also to learn from our mistakes.
One of the studies looking at trust, identified two types of trusting individuals, those that are trusting but are also vigilant and those that are indiscriminate in the way they trust. 

Let’s say you have a friend who borrowed money from you and promised to repay you within a month and then you never heard from them again for two years. And then the same friend asks you for some more money out of the blue and promises to repay you the whole amount he or she owes you within a month…what would you do?  You can say no, but this may make them angry and you may not get back what you have already given them or you could lend them more money in hope they will repay it back.  I guess this situation also depends on the type of friendship but behaviour has been found the best predictor of future behaviour so you would be wise not to trust them again and lose more good money after bad.  There are always exceptions to the rule but these are so rare that it is best to see situations as rules rather than exceptions.   

Trust is part of our lives. We trust that the doctor has our best interests at heart, that the government knows what they are doing and that the food we eat is safe. We need to trust someone or something every day.  If we want to be socially competent, we need to trust others.  This trust will be abused at times but the best we can do is to learn to place our trust in those people who seem to be trustworthy and be on the look out for signs that someone is not trustworthy.  After all, if the bird in the photograph was not trusting the situation, it would miss out on the easy food.  So I leave you with this quote by Ernest Hemingway: “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them.”

Photographs by: Andre Gagne

Dawkins, R. (2004). A devil's chaplain: Reflections on hope, lies, science, and love. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Greenspan, S. (2008a). Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. ABC-CLIO.

Markóczy, L. (2003, July). Trust but verify: Distinguishing distrust from vigilance. In Presentado en la Academy of Management Conference en Seattle

Yamagishi, T., Kikuchi, M., & Kosugi, M. (1999). Trust, gullibility, and social intelligence. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2(1), 145-161. 

Yamagishi, T., & Kakiuchi, R. (2000). It takes venturing into a tiger’s cave to steal a baby tiger: Experiments on the development of trust relationships. The Management of Durable Relations, 121-3

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why reporting scams can feel like being scammed twice

Being a victim of a scam is an unpleasant experience. When people realise that they have been scammed, feelings of shame and hurt can be overwhelming.  In fact, in one of the interviews I conducted with victims of scams, a victim told me that although she felt anger at the time it happened, afterwards this anger turned into feelings of shame and failure, a strong feeling that she cannot look after herself, that she is not competent enough… Of course, every scam and every person is different and therefore the experience is different for everyone.  Some people are able to shrug it off as an experience to learn from but for some, being scammed can be life changing.  This also vastly depends on how much you have lost.  It is easy to shrug off few pounds but not so easy if you lost your life savings to an investment scam.

There are many agencies that deal with victims of crime and although scams are criminal acts, they are not treated the same as some other criminal activities.  People are urged to report scams to the police or the relevant agencies and there is no shortage of agencies that you can contact if you have been a victim of a scam. Crimestoppers, ActionFraud, your local Trading standards, Office of Fair Trading and so on, and of course, the police themselves. These agencies are doing all they can, especially with the number of scams growing, but many victims feel they did not get any support at all.

Commissioned by the government, a large-scale study looking into the system of support for victims of fraud was done by the researchers at the University of Portsmouth. Large part of the study entailed interviewing victims themselves, in order to find out what they think of the help they receive.  Many victims have reported patchy service, little advice, especially when it comes to how not to become a victim again.  Of course there are plenty of warnings out there, not to respond to suspicious emails, not to open attachments from people we don’t know and not to send money to strangers… however humans are and always will be, curious by nature.  Office of Fair Trading report (2009) found that certain people engage in scams over and over, despite being good decision makers in other areas of their lives, so perhaps there is something else that drives people to ignore simple advice regarding scams.

Problem is not just the patchy victim support, perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that many scam victims never see justice or recoup their funds.  With any other crime, once you report it to the police, you expect the police to find the perpetrator and punish them accordingly.  Scams are different.  Government will only prosecute fraud that they deem is in the public interest, or in other words, large enough. Most scams fall under civil law, which means that the victim is left to find a way of getting their own justice by pursuing the matter in the civil court. Many cannot afford this even if they know their scammer and many scammers, therefore, go unpunished.

The study by the same researchers has also found that victims who get the most support are the ones who have been chosen to testify in court.  They are provided with an assigned case worker and are supported through the experience. Victims of identity fraud seem to also fare better than most victims,  due to the fact that banks have dedicated fraud departments dealing with the victim directly and most identity fraud victims get adequate advice and money they lost back relatively quickly.

For many other victims who have been unlucky enough to be scammed, there is a bleak outcome.  The burden of proof is on them rather than on the scammer and many have no money for legal advice and/or court fees for the case they may want to bring against their scammer.  Many of those interviewed for that study also reported not being given much advice on how not to become a victim of a scam again.  The reasons people engage in scams are complex.  Scams themselves are designed to evoke different reaction in people. It is important to try to understand the underlying reasons why people find any particular scam interesting, in order to help them avoid scams in the future.  So far, there is little support like this for victims of scams.  Although the authorities are investing more effort trying to understand different factors that underlie scams and people’s responses to them, apart from general advice given everywhere online, there is little else in form of advice that some victims can relate to.  For example, looking into different ways scammers motivate their victims or which personality characteristics may be influential in making someone more susceptible to certain scams, might prove to be an invaluable tool in educating potential or repeated victims how to change their behaviour.  At present there is not much research into these factors or resources to help most of the victims and this is perhaps why scammers can get away with murder.

Button, M., Tapley, J., & Lewis, C. (2013). The ‘fraud justice network’and the infra-structure of support for individual fraud victims in England and Wales.Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(1), 37-61.

Lea, S., Fischer, P., & Evans, K. (2009). The psychology of scams: Provoking and committing errors of judgement. report for the Office of Fair Trading, available online at www. oft. gov. uk/shared_oft/reports/consumer_protection/oft1070. pdf.