Sunday, November 14, 2010

Beware Of Twitter Scams

I've written before about the use of Twitter for charity purposes and why I think it has to be used really carefully. If people retweet every request they get they become worthless to all involved. They have to be done very selectively to be effective/useful in my opinion.

Yesterday I started to get a lot of requests from people asking me to promote a Twitter account called @FollowersInNeed on the grounds that they were promising to donate 50p per tweet to Children in Need for every follower they could get.

Which sounds like a brilliant thing to retweet doesn't it? Because people don't need to do anything except follow them and money goes to a good cause! In fact, that's so good it's... oh... hang on... that makes no sense.

Who would promise to do that? They'd need to have unlimited funds to make a promise like that. What if they got 2million followers? It could happen if one of the goliath's of twitter got behind them and encouraged their followers to get on board. Have they got a million pounds to donate? If they have, why are they only donating £7,000 for getting 14,000 followers? How does the number of followers they have relate to how much largesse they're prepared to show a particular charity?

It would make a small amount of sense if it was a big company doing it. Companies make large donations to charity because it breeds goodwill for their brand. (And because they're nice) . If they could make a big donation, get all that public goodwill and come out of it with a load of nicely buttered up followers they could send links and stuff to that might be seen as worthwhile.

But even then I don't think they could afford 50p a follower. And it would be easy to verify. They'd have their name and branding on their twitter page. There'd be some legalese around explaining what their limits were so that an unexpectedly large follower count didn't spin them into financial ruin and most obviously of all - there would be links on their own corporate website linking to it. One-way links are always a dead giveaway.

Of course @FollowersInNeed didn't have even the whiff of authenticity about them. Their page looked as though it had been written by children trying to sound like adults. There was no explanation as to who they were and how (or why) they were donating the money. There were vague phrases about how money was being "raised in local villages" and so on but that only added to the confusion. (Aren't all villages local to somewhere?)

I mean, if you're organising fundraising activities in your local village(s) you don't need to then filter the funds through to a charity with some correlation to the number of followers you have on your anonymous twitter account. If you raise £500 you donate £500. If you raise £5000 you donate £5000.

What if you promise to donate 50p per follower and get more followers than you can afford to donate for. What if you get less followers. Is the rest profit? It's obviously nonsensical.

So I used twitter to ask other people if they also thought it looked dodgy. Lots of people did. Some people had already seen it and thought the same. (@ACloakedFigure & @CharonQC, I think, amongst them. Others too)

At the same time I also got a small amount of grief from a few people telling me off for it on the grounds that it-might-be-real and they're-not-asking-for-any-money-so-what-harm-can-it-do? and so on.

And here's the thing: I think it's harmful. I think a fake account like that is doing harm simply by existing and, worse still, has the potential to be used for even more harmful purposes.

Here are a few ways in which it can be harmful.
1: Charity-fatigue is a recognised phenomenon. People become hardened to charity requests the more they feel they're on the end of them. Having some fake charity feeds buzzing around just adds to the morass.

2: People are making choices. As I said before I don't think you can (or should) retweet links to every charitable account going. If someone decides to retweet that one instead of a genuine good cause, the good cause loses out.

3: Say they run the account for a while and get 50,000 followers. Most of those people won't remember that they followed them. It doesn't feel important. So they can then change the account name to something else entirely and start using the account for more obviously unwholesome things. Like spam. Or malware.

More likely - in this instance - was that they were just kids. A few people were telling me it couldn't be a scam because they had nothing to gain. But don't kids knock on doors and then run away? Don't kids get the phone book and make random phone calls. Don't kids just get off on the fact that Amanda Holden from off the telly - OMG! - fell for their trick and retweeted them - them! - to over 200,000 people!

That's still a scam. It's just a vanity scam.

Importantly, I think questioning these sort of things is right whether they turned out to be legit or not. If they are legitimate they should be offering authentication already. If questioning them makes them do so, they'll raise loads more for their charity. And if they're not legit they'll get found out and that's good too. Win/win.

I certainly wasn't the only one questioning them - nor likely the first. And as you might expect with twitter it snowballed a little bit. Because the way they responded only made even more people get suspicious which led to more people questioning them and more people retweeting those questions and so on. The more visible they were the more people were scrutinising them and they didn't really stand up to any scrutiny. There can't have been many people left looking at their childlike, defensive answers who didn't think they were a fake account.

If you had been in any doubt their next move rather sealed it. They posted a message saying they were about to change the account name and use it for something else and asked their followers not to abandon them, "especially Amanda Holden, The Wanted, JLS and saturdays fans!! ..And cheryl fans!" (Yep, pretty sure they were just kids.)

They then changed the name of the account to @LovingTeamHolden (or something like that - they were definitely thrilled to have had her tweet them). But that didn't last because loads of people tracked the name change and continued to ask questions. So they became @closingaccount_ and then finally @LovingTeamSats - a fan account for The Saturdays. As I type the account has been deleted completely.

Luckily they were unable to go back and use the name @FollowersInNeed again because the very smart @JackOfKent who was following the whole fiasco nipped in and registered a new account in that name. So the existing account in the name @FollowersInNeed is benign... it basically exists just to prevent anyone else from using it again. (Oddly that hasn't stopped new people following it).

Today a new account sprang up using the name @FollowInNeed and making the same silly, unverified claims. It might have been the same people or it might have been someone else. Who knows. Either way, they closed the account within 3 minutes of me asking them a question.

There might be others. Some of them might be for real for all I know. But if they don't have a link on their page to some other site that explains where the money is going to come from and how and why it is related to the number of followers they have then I'd suggest the chances are they're not likely to be legit. You certainly shouldn't be too embarrassed to check because you're worried you'll look mean questioning a good cause.

With that said... there is an official Children In Need account: @pudseybear but of course nobody's going to magically donate money to the charity just because you follow them. You can donate yourself, if you feel so inclined, by going to bbc.co.uk/pudsey

***********************************
UPDATE: I'm adding this to the original post. A lot of people are now asking me to verify accounts for them. I really don't want to be a twitter cop. I guess I'm encouraging you to use common sense. That applies whichever side of the fence you're on. If you're setting up a twitter page like this that's genuine - but offers no explanation as to how the number of followers relates to money raised then you can't blame people for being suspicious. If you're being asked to pass something on and can't verify it for yourself then just don't pass it on.

For what it's worth, I believe that @FollowMeRecord is well intentioned but just awfully unthought through. If anything it's probably their naivety that inspired the young scammers. Their newly created blog suggests they have some local businesses offering them some money but up to a limit of £7300. So they need to get 14600 followers. 7 grand is not to be sniffed at, mind. But I'd be very surprised if they really do raise anywhere close to it. My guess - and it is just that - is that they mean well but haven't actually got assurances from any of the businesses. Certainly one of the businesses mentioned on their page is denying ever having heard from them.

But this is just opinion. I have no way of verifying them either way.

***********************************
UPDATE UPDATE: On the night of Children In Need there was another one of these accounts - their username was the CIN phone number. Again lots of people were retweeting it and they got quite a few followers. Again when people started asking questions and @ACloakedFigure mentioned that, if they were fake it was basically fraud, they panicked and caved in. It turned out to be a young girl. Possibly the same girl who'd run the others. Who knows.

Oh... and while I'm here, there's a story in the Express suggesting that @coastaltrek is also less than real. I've no idea. But as with all these surely the main point should be that people should apply their own judgement. Don't take anything at face value. I don't believe anyone's going to donate to a charity on your behalf simply because you followed them on Twitter. If you can't verify it, just don't pass it on.

***********************************
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE
December 10: FollowMeRecord have recently changed their name to @TweetRumours. When they were called FollowMeRecord they exchanged private messages with me and one of them - Harry - gave me his mobile phone number. He said something like "if you think we're fraudulent you can publish it if you like" and he said something similar in his blog post here. FollowMeRecord were based in Leeds whereas TweetRumours is claiming to be in Southampton.

I called Harry. I said, "Hello..." and he put the phone down.

It all sort of suggests that they were lying in the first place or that maybe it went a bit pear shaped. But TweetRumours definitely doesn't feel like the work of 3 adults. I don't think I'll publish his number. I might well pass it to the police though.
***********************************

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post dave

SpursSimon said...

Thanks very much for that Dave. After being intially of the mind that "they are not asking for money so ignore" tweeting with you and also the excellent @Charonqc I realised how much harm this type of account can actually do, intentionally or not by the creators.
And this save me writing it up fpr my blog ;-)

Anonymous said...

It's easy to get caught out if you don't have your thinking cap on.

Alan Harrison said...

Great stuff Dave. I was another one hassling them at the time, and captured screenshots of all the account name changes and weird tweets on my blog for posterity....
http://slightlygutted.blogspot.com/2010/11/followersinneed-debacle.html

Anonymous said...

I think there is an interesting dilema with Twitter for those working for non-profits and charities. I don't think they should be used to get funds but to spread the message, if you can drive people to your website that is far more effective ... Marketing is important and Twitter is free which, as I work for a non -profit, is very important.
Excellent post ... :o)

Brian Gooch said...

Well said Dave.

I guess it's the modern equivalent of the "Microsoft/AOL are doing some research about [some bullshit or other]. Please forward this email to everyone in your address book and they will [magically and impossibly] track it and will donate something to someone if you do." emails that used to do the rounds 10 years ago.

Except in that case the corporate backing was (theoretically) capable of supporting the promise, although the premise was technologically impossible.

Spam, spam, spam, spam, etc.

@missterry83 said...

I found a reference to a comment you'd made on twitter, about the followersinneed scam, relating to someone under the name @coastaltrek, i wondered how he had got involved, if and why you think his project is a scam too?
please don't get me wrong and take me for someone else wanting to have a go at you for what you said. I actually do think he's a fake, but maybe for different reasons than what you've already said about the followers in need scam.
I would have replied on twitter, but I'm afraid I am a little bit of a technophobe, and haven't yet worked out how to do anything other than read them. I'll work on that.
as for what you said on the blog. I completely agree.
if you wanted to reply i'd be really interested to hear what you have to say.
Thanks

Neil said...

Thank you for posting this Dave

For me this raises a number of important points, not just about the use of Twitter for charity purposes. There seems to be a groupthink phenomenon that says "all charity good" and anyone that questions it, or fails to support it, is bad.

If this were really the case, of course, there would be no need for the Charities Commission and the vetting that takes place to make sure what is being claimed is above board.

Some celebrities feel duty bound to adhere to any charity effort to keep themselves aligned with public opinion and so keep their own profile more visible. I think I have more time for the guys that work tirelessly for a single charity because it is personal to them.

This example is a good one of groupthink dictating that all you need do is support it, and to not do so would be unthinkable. Regardless of the merits of the individual charity.

Interesting to see press articles in recent days about the military's discomfort with the groupthink surrounding military charities. Glad someone out there is still thinking

dhirenshah said...

Nice post Dave!!!!

Dave Gorman said...

@missterry83 as far as I know I haven't mentioned @coastaltrek although several people have brought him to my attention. I believe he's real, there's a news story about him here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/cornwall/hi/people_and_places/newsid_9175000/9175439.stm

A Cloaked Figure said...

Well done, Dave, on a good weekend's work.

It needed someone with a large number of followers to bring down the fake accounts otherwise they would probably still be going. I realised early on that it didn't matter how many tweets i posted i was never going to prevent the tidal wave of thousands being fooled by it. Tweeting under their hashtag was pointless due to the way tweets are sorted and the fact few people would have been reading it anyway. Early on i only saw one other tweeter questioning it ( @BACKConsulting )

I decided to focus on tweeting the person directly. They immediately became very defensive and posted the first denials of being fake at that time. It was as if they thought those who followed them could see what i was saying. By denying being fake without providing any proof of being genuine they were actually weakening their charade rather than strengthening it.

It seems clear from searching on @followersinnned that once you and your many followers began questioning them they realised the game was up. When they posted 'bored' I think that can be translated as 'embarrassed'.

I think the fact that you easily scared off the other account may mean we may not see any more from that person this week.

I tweeted a couple of people on Saturday afternoon who had fallen for it. One replied and said that it didnt really matter as it was costing him nothing and good causes may benefit. This was, i would guess, a quite intelligent man judging by first impressions.
He actually implied that he trusted @followersinneed more than he trusted me.

There were quite a few people saying that same thing when it became clear to many it was fake. I'm not sure the 'it doesn't really matter' attitude is a healthy one especially if a large section of society hold it.

Keep a mallet handy, Dave, in case it crawls out of its hole again. You may have got your own unique online version of whack-a-mole!

Greg. Tingey said...

Wow.

How would we cope without you policing the internet for us Dave?

Dave Gorman said...

Sarcasm Greg? (So hard to know with a wow)

I'm not policing anything! The tricky thing is that sometimes you get forced to get involved.

If someone is doing their own charity thing they often ask loads of people to retweet a link to their fund raising page. For the reasons mentioned in the post I linked to above I rarely retweet them. I don't think most of those people mind. I think most ask more in hope than expectation and understand that theirs is one of many similar requests.

But with things like these - where people aren't asking for money but are instead promising to give money to a charity in return for you simply following them - they motivate other unconnected people to ask for retweets on their behalf because that becomes the equivalent of making a donation.

So I had 30 or 40 well intentioned people - none of them involved in the scams - asking me to RT them and 2 or 3 people telling me off for not doing.

So at some point, the fact that some people believe them means they think less of me for not joining in. And ignoring them doesn't make that problem go away. But explaining to those individuals that I don't believe the account is legit doesn't really deal with the problem either. For one, they tend not to believe me and for two, it does nothing to inform the next person and so nothing to stem the flow.

I've had several requests today from people asking me what I think of account A or account B - as if I have some special powers of deduction that they don't have. I'm not getting involved in any of that... people are more than qualified enough to use their own judgement. What I do have now though is a handy blog post I can point people to when I'm asked to RT another one. It's hard to do that within the bounds of twitter itself. Tweets get lost after a while. And having more than 140 characters is sometimes a nice luxury to have.

Active said...

really interesting. Thanks for posting

Martin Buck said...

Wow. Sorry, let me be clearer: non-sarcastic Wow.

Thanks very much, Dave; your erudite article explains brilliantly how something which is apparently harmless can actually be a bad idea. Far better than I could ever have done.

On the topic of major corporations making donations, I've wondered the same thing myself: Apart from making their customers feel good about themselves, why go through the charade of donating x amount per customer up to a maximum? Why not just stump up the whole amount in one go, since they must have already budgeted for that? Naturally, if they're using it to try to attract new customers, then it makes sense, but usually it doesn't appear to have that in mind.

Dave Gorman said...

@Martin Buck: I haven't yet seen a corporation saying they would donate per customer/follower/whatever I just think it would make a bit more sense if these things did come from them because you'd understand a) what they got out of it and b) that they could afford it.

It's more common to see companies saying for every X you buy we'll donate £Y to cause Z - which makes sense because it's a proportion of their profit etc.

Kim said...

Came across this one today

MrMarkBeaumont Please follow this link & support if you can (& RT) http://bit.ly/9yaduz The Red Spokes team who are organising helped with my world cycle

Thing is when you follow the link to justgiving.com you find that Mark Beaumont has put £1k of his own money in first. Just goes to show there are so good people out there too.

Dave Gorman said...

@Kim: the thing is, that's a request for people to support a campaign. Every individual can decide whether to support it, forward it on or not. One of the reason these others spread like a virus is that they appear to be offering a magic fix: they don't say "please donate to cause X" they say "if you follow me I'll donate to cause X" which is a different thing entirely.

They make no sense. Having an extra follower doesn't make you more or less able to donate. If you had a £1million you were prepared to donate to a good cause but you only donated £100k because you didn't get enough followers what kind of heartless oaf are you?

There was another one on the night of Children In Need whose username was the CIN phone number. They were pretending to be Children In Need. They were offering to donate 5p for every follower and lots of people were RT'ing it. Why and how would a charity donate to itself? What money would they be donating.

Like the others mentioned here it was being run by a young girl (maybe the same one) who presumably was just excited to see how many followers she could amass while being oblivious to any harm it might do.