June 7, 2010
Brave New ScamsBy Paul Shlichta
There ought to be prizes for the most innovative scams of the year. We could award the Bidwell for the most elaborate preparation and the Ponzi for sheer audacity. I think I have found some candidates.
I've been writing a book on the anatomy of deceptions and was getting a bit jaded. Every scam I explored turned out to be a variation of one of the fifteen basic types that were developed long ago. Most of the five hundred e-mail scams in my collection are tedious reworkings of old-fashioned mail frauds. Fortunately, the internet has stimulated the creative juices of con artists, and I've recently found some refreshing innovations.
Last week, while perusing a news site, I noticed a link to what seemed to be a news article about acai berries. The web address, http://news5reports.com/health/acai-report/%20, looked genuine enough, and the website I clicked onto looked like a real news channel site, with all the usual links:
But I found the praise a little too lavish for any legitimate newscaster. My suspicions were aroused when I discovered that the site had links for ordering the two products the author described. So I did a little experimenting.
First, I tried to find the root site by reducing the site address to http://news5reports.com/. All that did was bring me back to the same site. The links in the upper left corner turned out to be bogus, while the links to "NEWS," "U.S.," "WORLD," etc. all led to newsvine.com, an apparently unrelated site.
The first ten readers' comments (supposedly out of 177) were gushingly laudatory, but there was no way to click onto the remaining 167. There was a spot to "Leave a Reply," so I wrote one and clicked "Submit." A box popped up saying "Thank you for your comments. Your comments will appear after approval by our editorial team." But no transmission of data had actually occurred.
Down at the bottom of the site, I found some long paragraphs of TERMS AND CONDITIONS, in very small type, dark gray on light gray so as to be almost unreadable. I could just barely make out:
The identical text and disclaimer, with variations in heading and format, can be found at innumerable sites, including "News Alerts - News 6, "Health News - Health Beat 9," "Consumer Report - 2010 Top Diet Trends," "Weekly Consumer Digest," and even "US Medical Journal."
You may be disgusted, but I was reminded of the scene in The Sting where Robert Redford and Paul Newman set up a bogus bookie joint, complete with customers and raiding FBI agents, solely to separate a victim from his suitcase of cash. I couldn't help feeling flattered that the News5Reports gang had gone to all the trouble of constructing a bunch of phony news websites just to con me into buying some acai berries. Perhaps their scam isn't very original, but at least they did an elaborate and thorough job if it. (I particularly liked their bogus weather report.)
In contrast, my nomination for the Ponzi is an impressive technological achievement that attacks our subconscious vulnerabilities from a new angle. I learned about it from a devoutly liberal relative who received a MoveOn e-mail urging her to watch a personalized video to "see yourself as the center of an out-there Glenn Beck conspiracy theory." If you watch the video here, you'll understand why she now thinks that Glen Beck is out to get her.
Here are a couple of stills from my own "personalized" version:
I later discovered a similar site, run by Fuse, an ultraliberal activist group in the state of Washington. This video was part of a drive to collect signatures for a petition urging Congress to enact a "clean energy and climate bill." According to personalized scenes such as these:
If I signed,
But if I didn't sign,
Admittedly, these visual tricks are merely an updating of the personalized mail promotions that have been around for years. Moreover, the development of the video software to insert the viewer's name into various scenes (even transliterated into Greek) is impressive, but not an astounding breakthrough. However, the subconscious effect of seeing one's name in a variety of favorable and/or embarrassing contexts is much stronger than might be expected -- especially in our contemporary screen-centered society. This little trick could be a potent marketing tool.
I therefore read with dismay that the first video had been "paid for by MoveOn Org Civic Action, Brave New Films, and the Service Employees International Union." As we learned during the last election, MoveOn and SEIU do not dabble in innocent merriment; their specialty is ruthless electioneering.
These videos could be preliminary field tests of a forthcoming "October surprise." Imagine, for example, an illegal immigrant, registered to vote by ACORN, receiving a video with his name in several scenes, warning him that he will be deported immediately if he doesn't vote for the Democratic candidate in his district. Such a video, with suitable variations for other groups, could stampede gullible voters into doing MoveOn's bidding almost as if hypnotized.
Therefore, I would advise the RNC and other conservative groups to monitor Brave New Films and other liberal video producers very carefully.