How SEO Can Stop a Scammer

This column ran a bit ago in MediaPost while I was away and continues in the extended entry. It’s also interesting to see how others adapt stories for their own audiences; Carolyn Allen of California Green Solutions shared this with her readers as an example of how to be a good neighbor.

How SEO Can Stop a Scammer

It may be practically impossible to track down online scammers, but
as people become savvier in how to use search engines, some scams can
be contained. I found this out firsthand when two reports of a
Craigslist real-estate scam
came my way.

The reports were from people close to me who were separately
listing their homes for rent on Craigslist, and they each received
similar emails. One email, signed by Dr. Dennis Johnson, started,
“Hello, I come across your apartment advertised on the internet and i
am interested in renting it, please let me know if it is still
available. I will be signing one year lease for this unit and will be
staying with my wife and daughter, and will be willing to offer you 2
months rent plus the security deposit in order to secure this unit
prior to our arrival.”

The scammers, assuming there’s some group of them going about this
(various signs such as inconsistencies in the exchanges indicate there
are multiple perpetrators), include some other facts that they happened
to Google, though their information isn’t always current. In one
example, the scammer posing as Dr. Johnson mentioned that Merck CEO
Raymond V. Gilmartin would make arrangements on his behalf — a pretty
impressive connection. Gilmartin is actually the former CEO, one who
ironically resigned when Congress started investigating safety issues
with Vioxx. This would be comical, except that these scammers are
targeting people who are vulnerable and want so desperately to believe
that they’ve found a renter.

The email correspondence in these scams proceeds until the scammer
says he’s sending a check through some circuitous route, which he does
manage to send if the correspondence goes far enough. The sender,
however, mistakenly overpays the victim, so the victim has to then send
the difference back. If the victim goes through with it, the loss tends
to amount to a few thousand dollars.

When these scams were brought to my attention, I was relieved that
my friends figured out the ruse before sending any money out, but as we
were all shaken up and had little direct recourse to pursue the
scammers, I realized there was one way I could help. One of my friends
sent me the entire text of his correspondence with the scammer, and I posted it in full on my blog
with a summary of the scam, omitting my friend’s personal details. I
didn’t care in particular about informing my blog’s readers, as it may
or may not have mattered to them. Rather, there were four or so readers
I hoped would catch it — Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Ask. Humans, at
first, were irrelevant. If the search engines could access the post,
then other people would be able to see it in time.

  That’s exactly what happened. That blog post and a follow-up
have attracted a number of people who searched for information about
what they suspected was a scam and wound up with the proof to confirm
their hunches. Several of these visitors have in turn left comments
with other aliases used by the scammers and other pertinent details,
giving the engines even more content to work with. One commenter named
Jodi wrote, “[I] just had the same thing happen to me…just received a
check for $9000 and was asked to send $3000 to a furniture company by
Dr. Scott. i was suspicious as i hadn’t received my application or any
personal information back from him so i googled him and found your
blog.”

It’s incredibly empowering to be able to share information this
way. There were so many other communications channels available that
wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Trying to tell friends about
this would have fizzled quickly, as it wouldn’t have been relevant.
Craigslist can’t do anything to police this, and they already include
warning messages in emails that come through the site (one warning
message even said “AVOID SCAMS BY DEALING LOCALLY”). If someone
completely fell for the scam and tried to seek financial recourse, it’s
unlikely any local or federal investigators would track down a $3,000
check that clearly wound up further overseas than the UK (in one of the
many incredible aspects of the scam, these people posing as British
doctors have no grasp of the English language).

By telling Google, the information is relevant to people when they
need it, and it’s accessible to people who are several degrees of
separation away from me. For any sort of information that retains value
beyond the day it’s created and that is most valuable to people in very
specific situations, there is no better way to reach them than by
funneling the content through an online communications channel
optimized for search engines. That can apply to holiday recipes,
product manuals, local business reviews, and countless other forms of
content.

When you have something to share that’s truly valuable, you may or
may not need to tell a friend, but you definitely need to tell a search
engine.

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