The Ol' Bait and Click

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

The eBay vendor had a glowing record -- more than 900 successful sales, with only a single complaint amid a long series of positive testimonials from customers. So when a Georgia bidder won the seller's auction for an Olympus digital camera in January, there seemed little reason to worry about dispatching almost $700 into cyberspace.

But the camera never arrived.

"I don't think I will ever buy anything over the Internet again," the conned bidder lamented in a posting on an eBay discussion board. "I am not a wealthy person, had saved long and hard for this camera for my business, and don't know when, or IF EVER I will see my $700 again."

Ever since the early days of the Internet, Web sites have struggled to find ways of reassuring users that a stranger could be as honest as a well-known local merchant, as knowledgeable as a respected teacher or as insightful as a wise grandparent. With Internet commerce now estimated to exceed $100 billion a year and greater numbers of people turning to the Internet for products, advice and love, Web sites are crafting more elaborate rating and feedback systems -- reputation monitors of sorts -- to help people evaluate whom they can trust. But the cheats have also noticed the unprecedented chance for ill-gotten gains. This has set off a high-stakes game of cat and mouse as Web sites spend more time and money to secure their systems against those trying to game them.

"We are increasingly living in a mobile, virtual world," said Chrysanthos Dellarocas, a professor of information systems at the University of Maryland business school. "To retain some form of social fabric in this world, we need some reputation mechanism."

One of the best-known reputation systems is the one used by Amazon.com, which provides user-written reviews of the books and it sells and then allows other users to rate the reviewers. Slashdot, a popular technology and current affairs Web site, developed what it calls a "karma" system for evaluating contributors. One of Yahoo's fast-growing features, Yahoo Answers, now boasts 75 million users who ask and answer each other's online questions about nearly any subject, with greater weight accorded to those who earn expert ratings from other users.

"Reputation is key to it all," said Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo's vice president of product strategy.

EBay established its position as the Web's premier auctioneer in part by pioneering a system to allow buyers and sellers to rate each other and comment on the quality of their transactions.

"It has been essential for eBay's success. It increased trust in the marketplace and created a community," eBay chief executive Meg Whitman said in an interview.

But users have repeatedly found ways to inflate or wholly fabricate their reputations. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, was thrown into turmoil late last month after users learned that one of the site's major editors was not a tenured university religion professor as he claimed in his online profile but a 24-year-old college dropout. At Amazon, a computer glitch three years ago inadvertently exposed the real names of reviewers writing under pseudonyms. Some turned out not to be disinterested literary judges but authors giving their own books glowing reviews to boost sales.

The scams take countless and ever more ingenious forms. These include intimidating other users who give negative ratings by threatening to retaliate with negative feedback of their own. Some con artists also create false secondary accounts, known as "sock puppets," that a cheat can use to give himself fake positive feedback. It also includes piling up legitimate positive reviews and then closing in for the kill as an eBay seller from New Jersey called "malkilots" did to nearly three dozen would-be camera buyers, including the bidder from Georgia.

That scheme -- according to feedback, discussion boards and auction descriptions on the eBay site -- went down like this: Malkilots built a sterling track record by selling memory cards for digital cameras for as little as $20 each. The vender sold them by the hundreds, delivering them as promised and accumulating page after page of positive feedback from satisfied customers.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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