For all the wonders of the Internet, there’s no question that cyberspace is also the greatest platform ever invented to propagate fraud, deception, and abuse.  Ranging from that Nigerian prince who desperately needs your help to recover his lost fortune, to the “magic bullet” career sites and free resume critique services out there that tempt nervous job hunters with formulaic, fear-based sales pitches (see a previous post of mine here), there seems to be no shortage of people willing to leverage the Internet to exploit their fellow man.

Along these lines, I couldn’t resist sharing a quick story with you all reflecting a sketchy Internet exchange I’VE gone through in the past 24 hours.  I’m embarrassed to say I almost got sucked in by this, until I finally started trusting my intuition and acknowledging the many warning signs that kept showing up.  Here’s the deal.  Yesterday, I received a note in my inbox from a woman named Nicole Adams:

“Hi Matt: I know this email is out of the blue, but I just posted an article on my blog entitled “10 Jobs You Would Never Guess Pay Really Well”.  Anyway I figured I’d bring it to your attention in case you thought it interesting enough to drop a quick mention on your site about it as I’m trying to increase readership of my blog.  Either way, sorry for the unsolicited email and hope you have a good week. Thanks, Nicole.”

My first reaction?  I was flattered by the request — and thought “good for this person for taking a chance and being proactive about growing their business!”  Their request certainly seemed friendly and polite enough, and since the subject matter was relevant to my audience, I figured there would be no harm in lending a hand and giving a little extra exposure to this person in building their blog readership.  So I wrote “Nicole” back the following message:

“Nicole: Thanks very much for your note – and I’d be delighted to repost your article for two reasons.  First, because I think it’s a very interesting piece that my readers will enjoy and second, because I think your note is a great reminder of how people need to take chances, reach out to people, and just ask for what they want.  Just as long as they do so in a polite way with lots of transparency, as your note perfectly illustrates.  So it would be my pleasure to post your piece and I’ll probably do so later tonight!  Thanks for getting in touch.”

Now at this point, to help you fully understand the “plot” of this story and how I was looking at things, I’d encourage you to actually click on the link Nicole sent me here (don’t worry; nothing bad will happen) to examine the page and the article in question.  See any red flags?  I noticed a few questionable items, myself, but honestly, my attention was still mainly focused on the article itself.  And the “nice guy” in me was still thinking positively and looking to help this person out.  So at the last second, I just tacked on an extra note that read:

“P.S. I’ll admit, though, I’m confused about one thing.  The article you sent me doesn’t actually appear to be part of a blog, but instead part of some weird Construction Management Degree site that seems like an advertisement of some kind.  So can I actually ask who you are, what you do, and where my readers could FIND your blog, if they chose to read it?  None of this information is really clear to me based on your note…”

A day later, here is the response I received, in its entirety:

“Matt, thanks, my profile is there on the site.  I’ve many articles on the blog.  Nicole.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly a very confidence-inspiring reply — plus, it struck me as odd that a person who writes for a living (at least in the U.S.) would ever use the contraction “I’ve” for the phrase “I have” in this manner.   Pretty strange.  So when I went back to the website in question again, and paid a little more attention, it became patently obvious I was been played for a sucker.  Not only did the “blog” link on the site not work, but I noticed that the “10 jobs” article didn’t have a byline, this Nicole person’s name was nowhere to be found, and that the entire site was nothing but a phony landing page of some kind trying to boost traffic to a huge list of links.  Additionally, I remembered that this Nicole person’s original note wasn’t accompanied by a signature block of any kind that listed a company name, corporate address, blog link, or any of the other contact info that any legitimate businessperson would almost certainly be sharing in this manner.

The icing on the cake?  Hours later, I received yet ANOTHER note from a totally different individual that read as follows:

“Hi Matt: We would love to share with you an article that we just posted on our own blog! “50 Body Language Secrets You Need to Succeed in Life” would be an interesting story for your readers to check out and discuss on your blog. If you find something interesting or similar, please let me know.  Thanks so much for your time, and have a wonderful day!  Celina Jacobson”

Not the exact same script, mind you, but identical enough that it was now patently obvious some unknown person or entity was using these “friendly” overtures for some sort of inappropriate purpose, likely to build up traffic statistics for their client websites or something.

The moral of the story?  The con artists out there are getting better and better at making their phony solicitations seem legitimate — to the point that the conversational tone of this particular message almost pulled the wool over my eyes, despite the fact that I fancy myself sort of a “Ralph Nader” when it comes to Internet shenanigans.  So be on guard, people.  These kinds of scams are going to get increasingly sophisticated in the days ahead, and while this particular one still seems somewhat innocuous, others could easily involve some kind of trap related to credit card fraud or identity theft.

It reminds me of a time, several years ago, when I was about to place a sizable order online for some customized thumb drives I wanted to have on hand to promote my business.  At the last second, just to be safe, I decided to call directory assistance in the city where this printing company was apparently located — and there was no listing for them.  So I wrote them back, asking them politely if they could point me to some proof that they were a legitimate enterprise.  Their response?  “Guess you’ll have to order from us to find out.”

Needless to say, I took a pass!