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.