A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
We’re just digesting and analyzing the impact to the nation of being exposed to untruthful news stories. (Note: I’m following Dan Gillmor’s advice and not using “fake news,” because that term has been hijacked by Donald Trump to refer to news he disagrees with.) And while this may be the most severe example of being misled by the Internet, it’s certainly not the only. In fact, the internet is filled with cases whose sole purpose is to trick and deceive us under the guise of offering useful information.
One pervasive example is when searching for ratings on various products. There’s a vast number of sites that purport to provide objective analyses and ratings of products. The sites are titled with names such as www.top10antivirussoftware.com, but are often sites created to tout one product over another, or to just provide a list of products with links to buy, in exchange for referral fees.
A search for “Best iPhone cables” finds one top choice (paid-for position), “BestReviews.Guide,” a site that reviews numerous products. There’s no explanation of how they rate, but in their disclaimer, they write, “BestReviews. The guide provides information for general information purposes and does not recommend particular products or services.”
But pseudo-reviews are not confined to mysterious companies. Business Insider offers reviews called “Insider Picks.” Many of these reviews are filled with words but do little to explain the basis for their ratings.
What’s motivating all of these review sites? The opportunity to monetize them by receiving kickbacks or referral fees when someone clicks to buy, primarily from Amazon. You can examine the link that takes you to Amazon to see the code added to the normal link. Commission range up to 10 percent, with an average of about 5 percent.
And here’s another example of deception and trickery on the web. I experienced a problem with QuickBooks on my Mac, and looked for a phone number to get help. There was no phone number in the app, so I searched online. Up came an 800 number, using Google’s search and a Website titled “QuickBooks 800 Help Line.” I called it, got a seemingly helpful technician, and he readily identified the cause of my problem. He said he needed to install the QuickBooks utility software on my computer to remove some bad files. As I started to allow this, I hesitated and asked if there is was any charge. He said there is a $300 charge for the utility.
That’s when I checked with my daughter, using a second phone line — coincidentally, she’s an Intuit manager. She confirmed after a quick call to the head of customer support that I was not speaking to Intuit, but an imposter. I quickly hung up and later discussed this with an executive at Intuit. Their policy, like many companies, had been to hide their customer-service number because they were not equipped to handle the volume of calls. She said they never anticipated what I experienced and, perhaps, as a result, their phone number pops up at the top of a search.
I was reminded of this the other day when I was doing a story on Google’s customer support, which is a major consideration when buying their new phones. Searching for a support number brought up many sites purporting to be Google support, but no Google number. One prominent site is “Gmailtech.info” with the headline “Unlimited Gmail support” and a phone number, and this paragraph:
“Phone Support-one can reach the Google Technical Support service by dialing their customer service number which is completely free of cost and our customer care is available 24/7*35 days. You just need to call on the Google Support Phone Number, and you will get all the solutions to your problems.”
Of course, it takes you to a GTech number. And notice the poor grammar.
These misleading support sites are still rampant, taking advantage of those looking for help and information.
This is probably not a revelation to most of us in the tech community that once laughed about the Nigerian scams, but like deceptive news stories, the players are getting more sophisticated at deception.
Phil Baker is a product development expert, author and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies, including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Baker is the author of “From Concept to Consumer,” a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript and founder of Techsperts Inc. Follow him at Baker on Tech and reach him @pbaker.