In Digital-Data Frontier, Scammers and Hackers Find Pickings All Too Easy

Programmatic Buying Through Myriad of Ad Exchanges Pose Problems

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Big data that's often wrong. Fraudulent and deceptive ads that are difficult to keep track of let alone police. These are the dark corners of cyberspace.

An avalanche of unformed and uninformed "information" is swirling around the digital world, and it's hard to cut through the morass to determine if what's out there is legitimate (although error-prone).

But what happens if some of the stuff is purposely being launched for nefarious purposes to throw competitors (or governments) off the trail?

Programmatic buying through a myriad of ad exchanges is zipping messages to the farthest reaches of cyberspace, and there are so many missives going to so many places that nobody is really sure of what's being conveyed to whom. Even the digital-ad media say they can't always keep track.

And that can cause real mischief. In January, the Atlantic ran a story about internet serial scammer Jesse Willms. The magazine says the 26-year-old "provides us with a perfect symbol of the savage landscape of online commerce. If the internet is still in many ways a Wild West, seemingly ungovernable in its vastness, then people like Willms may well be its canny snake-oil salesmen, talking fast and hustling unsuspecting consumers in the digital equivalent of broad daylight."

Eric Snowden used widely available software to accomplish his goal.
Eric Snowden used widely available software to accomplish his goal. Credit: Getty Images

And, the Atlantic charges, the internet continues to be "astoundingly underpoliced." Regulatory authorities like the FTC are undermanned; courts seem reluctant to punish offenders, "and worse yet, even, the sheriffs we believe are imposing order online -- Google, Yahoo, Microsoft -- often end up providing scammers with a platform for deception."

If it's difficult to stop cyber scammers, it's even tougher to police the use of erroneous personal data. The scary thing to me is that the same techniques that collect credit data also are used to compile data on consumer-buying patterns, and we've all heard the horror stories about how hard it is to get the credit agencies to correct errors.

Error prone
When the data-brokerage firm Acxiom opened up a website to allow consumers to check the accuracy of the information gathered on them, our reporters found that a lot of the info -- even the most basic data -- was just plain wrong.

According to Acxiom, our Abbey Klaassen was a college graduate (true), who is single, lives just above the poverty line, and has an auto-insurance renewal due (all false; she doesn't even own a car). The Acxiom data showed that one of our reporters, who is 25, was 66-67; another was classified as a student when in reality Ad Age is her third professional job.

Not to get too paranoid and conspiratorial about all this, but how do we know that some of the erroneous information hasn't been changed somewhere along the digital highway -- and other phony data have been embedded to send interested parties in the wrong direction?

Apparently it's not that hard to do. According to The New York Times, Edward Snowden used widely available software to scrape data off the National Security Agency's computer network.

So is software available to put other data back in the system so that nobody will know that the original data has been scraped?

Just asking.

Lee Peeler is president and CEO of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council and exec VP of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The self-regulatory body handles "competitor challenge" ad cases and also monitors possible fraudulent activity on its own, and Lee says most of its current activity involves some aspect of digital media.

It's much harder to stay on top of digital issues, Lee acknowledges, "but that is just as true for advertisers and the government as it is for us." Lee makes a point we've made before: "Too much of the industry is willing to rest on its laurels until the next big surge of government or consumer concerns emerge."

Stepping up
"That can be frustrating," he said. "But at the same time it's important to recognize all the leaders that have stepped up so that self-regulation can have the resources it needs to keep abreast of these issues before they spin out of control."

Lee points out that the FTC got on to the shenanigans of Mr. Willms through complaints that came into the Better Business Bureau offices. He adds that about 25% of the data that goes into the government's fraud database comes from the BBB system.

In the fall of 2011 a federal court, at the FTC's request, halted Jesse Willms' online operation that allegedly took in more than $400 million from consumers in the U.S. and Canada and froze Willms' assets. The scheme lured consumers using "free" or "risk-free" offers and then charged them for products they didn't agree to.

But that hasn't stopped him. As the Atlantic article explains, Willms folded his tent on diet products and morphed his online business into information services, such as driving records, and vehicle-history reports, across dozens of different pages.

But, the article concludes: "There's little point in getting worked up about something like Willms' vehicle-history venture. By the time this story is published, the sites may well be gone. Once again, Willms will have moved on to another scheme."

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