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Published 15 Nov 2016

If you follow us on Twitter you’ll know that we regularly warn you about online scams; search for #JackTheScammer, it makes interesting reading!

So today we thought we’d take a look at some of the online pitfalls you should watch out for.

As we all know, a range of organisations and individuals are very eager to gather your information when you’re on their website.  Collecting data on you and your habits allows them to effectively target you with marketing.  One of the most effective ways for them to collect your data is to ask you to complete an online form. This is often in exchange for a reward like entry into a competition or a subscription to a free newsletter.  As you complete these forms you’ll be asked to tick (or untick) boxes agreeing to receive marketing information, and you may be asked if you’re happy to receive marketing from 3rd parties they approve.

So far, so good.

This is all fine and above board, but this is also where it can get tricky. For example, the one-word difference in the two statements ‘check this box to get information from us’ and ‘check this box not to get information from us’, results in completely opposing outcomes.  So unless you carefully read the question you may inadvertently sign up for the wrong action. Also be aware of pre-checked boxes on sign up forms with messages like: “Uncheck this box if you do not want to receive information from us”.

CAN-SPAM Act of 2003

If you do inadvertently sign up for what could potentially be an avalanche of unwanted email, the sender of this spam has to give you an easy option to unsubscribe from their emails.  This is governed by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which sets the rules for commercial electronic messages (emails).  But often it’s difficult to find the unsubscribe link on the email, hidden in tiny lettering among a small print without any obvious indicator of a link. If you do find the unsubscribe link, the more unscrupulous organisations then make the unsubscribe process difficult and long-winded.  This will (if they get their way) frustrate you enough so that you don’t complete it and therefore they can continue to spam you.

Beware Free Trials

Another trick to be wary of is the free software/service trial. To qualify for the free trial, you often need to create an account and input your payment details, with the assurance that you will not be charged if you cancel before the trial expires. Of course, the organisations running this ‘trial’ are hoping you forget to cancel so they can begin taking your (often quite small) subscription payments without you noticing. It is estimated that millions of pounds are generated every year on subscriptions that people forget to cancel before the trial ends.  In the worst cases, organisations will make it extremely difficult to cancel the trial, for example having to make a phone call to them during unsocial hours.

Avoiding clickbait

A final trick that we’ll look at in this blog is one of the biggest trend of recent years, known as ‘clickbait’.  This describes the use of web content with the sole purpose of generating online advertising revenue, at the expense of good quality or accurate content. The tactic employs scandalous, shocking headlines or eye-catching images. They appear when browsing the web to attract people to click-through to a website. Clickbait headlines typically provide just enough information to make the reader curious and are often linked to current high profile and emotive topics, for example ‘The government say Brexit can’t happen – find out why here’. When the visitor gets to the site the information is thin on the ground, but the link has achieved its purpose; the website has received another click and therefore generated revenue from the paid advertising which will abound on the site.  So the tip here is if you see a highly sensational headline from a little known website, it’s simply aiming to get a click from you!

There are many unscrupulous practices online, and here we’ve just scraped the surface.  Some of these practices result in minor irritations, others will have more serious consequences. The key is to be aware of what you’re doing. Read the small print and be aware of what you’re clicking, whether it’s on a form or on a sensational headline.

And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter to keep up to date on #JackTheScammer.

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