Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Credibility is now for sale - how Internet changed 'word of mouth'

Once upon a time, businesses built credibility by doing good work and being recommended by customers.  Prior to the Internet, people still got scammed by con men but you knew that, when a friend recommended someone, they would more or less be safe.  Word of mouth is the best advertising - any business will tell you this. 

However, Internet has changed how we use 'word of mouth'.  There are several sites out there that a business can have; Facebook, Twitter, they may have a shop on eBay and so on.  There are also sites for employing tradesmen that build their credibility on feedback left by previous customers.  This is an electronic 'word of mouth' if you will.  But you should beware - these imaginary people are not your friends, whom you know and trust.  These people, leaving that great feedback or liking that Facebook page of that business you are checking up on might be shills.  So what is a shill? 

First of all, let me explain why you cannot trust everything you see on the Internet.  Businesses have cottoned on that having a presence online, on social media or somewhere where feedback can be read is essential for a savvy shopper (see my post on how) while this feedback is taken as a seller's credibility.   The number or followers on Twitter, the number of likes etc. counts as credibility for the brand.  But these things can be bought for as little as £5.  Even eBay feedback can be easily faked
But credibility does not end with social media followers, likes and feedback.  Really smart scammers will go to any length to enhance credibility, register themselves on an electoral roll, open limited companies and register them with Companies House (governmental website for registration of companies in UK) and so on.  These details are not rigorously checked by the government, they are taken as correct but on the governmental website, they have a degree of credibility and scammers know this. 

Above you see a Twitter account Tweeting at me asking if I want to buy followers and feedback and below one selling Twitter followers.  These accounts are real and advertise all over the Internet and you can purchase anything; followers, likes, comments.  I don't even trust social media promotion features (legitimate advertising you pay for)  as it can be easily be taken over by scammers with fake social media accounts. Many businesses buy their followers to make their business appear more established instantly.  Some of this is innocent, almost like an advert for the product but please be aware that scammers do that also.  You cannot believe the feedback alone and there are ways of testing feedback (see my post on how to spot fake feedback)
Feedback online does not equal word of mouth by friends and family, it can be faked and might not be genuine.  

And now just a brief word on shills.  Shill is a person who is hired by a company to create a buzz about a new product or a brand.  They typically post feedback on certain sites (if it is a product then on a site where it is sold), forums etc.  Shills will not have infinite amount of time to do that though so you can easily spot fakes by clicking on their username to cross reference what else they reviewed or posted and if this was the only thing on nearly the only thing, I would ignore their opinion. 

It is a sad fact that nowadays, nothing can be trusted to be real. Scammers invest a lot of time thinking up scams that wrap around what we know to be true and feedback is just one of those things; we take feedback as recommendation and we trust things that come recommended.  But as a buyer, you should always beware that not all that appears real is real on the Internet and do a bit more digging. 

Some tips for staying safe when shopping online that I have not covered above; 

1. Always pay with your credit card; credit cards are covered for fraud so it is likely you will get your money back, whereas bank transfer, debit cards and any type of money transfer is money lost forever. 
2. If you use PayPal, please know they have specific terms; if you cancel your complaint about not receiving goods, you are no longer covered by PayPal - scammers know this and will contact you apologising and ask you to cancel the complaint in order for them to send the purchase. 
3. Never follow links someone emails you to pay.  If you cannot pay on the website, it is probably a scam. 
4. Read terms and conditions before purchase; if it is a large purchase I tend to take a screen shot to have as proof of terms and conditions at the time of my purchase.  Lots of unethical practices openly have terms in their T&Cs that you won't like.