OPW INTERVIEW -- May 21, 2007 -- This is the third of five feature interviews on the topic of scamming. Abe Smilowitz is COO of WealthyMen.com, Fling.com and Webdate.com. - Mark Brooks
What kind of scamming do you encounter across Fling.com and WebDate.com and WealthyMen.com?
Like with every other dating site, it’s an issue that we’re always combating. The two types of scamming that occur are end user scamming and webmaster scamming.
The end user scamming is usually individuals that are coming in primarily from foreign countries pretending to be either attractive women, primarily, or attractive men. They chat and email back and forth with individuals and gain their trust. Then they ask for money or favors or any sort of particulars, but it’s primarily money that they’re looking for.
We obviously try to combat those fraudulent users by having several self reporting tools on the site where other users can report scammers with fake pictures, people that have solicited them for money or solicited them to go to other sites and that sort of thing. We feel that the best method is having the users self report because when you’re doing thousands of sign ups a day it becomes very difficult to manually scan every single sign up and follow what they’re doing.
Some of them are actually quite good. They use authentic photos and they write a full profile or copy someone else’s profile and it seems like a real person. We have users also that work for us that are surfing the site and use the site themselves and chat with other users and kind of get a feel for it and some of them have actually been duped by some of the scammers. They’re chatting and they think that it’s an attractive young woman and they’re talking back and forth for a week and then she comes out with, “Oh I need $200 for my mother’s operation.”
I don’t know if there’s a fool proof way to get rid of them 100%. I think the best way to do it obviously is to have people actively monitor the site, use the site, have the users self report and have a no tolerance policy where if someone’s doing that, a moderator will go and check out the profile, check out the series of emails or chats that they’ve sent back and forth and if it’s found that they are partaking in that kind of activity, they’re automatically disabled and we disable their IP address if possible.
Have you noticed that the number of incidents of scamming increasing or is it level or declining?
I know that it has actually decreased on our site because once we figured out that this kind of activity was going on we’ve actively been pursuing it and monitoring it. We do various types of IP monitoring. We banned several countries from using the site. That’s really the best way to try and get rid of these guys. That in conjunction with moderators and active users reporting back to our customer service and letting them know, “Hey this particular person is a scammer,” or, ”this profile is a bad profile,“ and we go in and police it.
How serious of a problem do you think it is for the industry as a whole?
I don’t think it’s a problem that’s going to destroy the industry but I think that it’s definitely a problem and I think it’s going to continue to be a problem. The only real way to prevent it 100%, I guess, would be to set up some kind of police state where you would have the government run some kind of check on you to make sure you are who you are.
I think that it’s going to be a problem and I think the industry needs to do the best that they can to combat it. It would be good to have obviously some kind of sharing of information because I’m sure there’s other sites and other executives at sites that have figured out different methods of combating it. I’m sure I’ve thought of things that other people haven’t.
The pooling of ideas is always a good thing and would help the industry as a whole but I think it’s always going to exist on the sites and the best you can do is try to educate the users about it.
Anyone that’s asking you for money, you should really obviously never give them money unless you’ve met the person, you know the person and you feel comfortable doing that. But someone you don’t even know, you never met and you’ve just been chatting with them online for a week or so, I don’t think it would be a good idea to send them cash. I think a lot of this really comes down to the users level of responsibility and common sense about what they’re doing. I understand that some of these users are lonely and at weak points where they’re looking for someone to talk to.
It’s a difficult problem and I think the users need to be more aware of it and need to be a little more standoffish and never divulge financial information or give any money to anyone on a community site.
What can the industry do as a whole? Have you tried reaching out to other sites to share the IP addresses of scammers, for example?
No, I personally haven’t but I think that would be a good idea. I think it would need to come from an independent source. I don’t know that it would necessarily make sense for me as a site owner to go ahead and contact some of my competitors and go through that. I think that it would probably be more credible if it came from a third party independent source.
Do you know of any providers of such a service?
No, I don’t know of anyone that actually does that.
How high on the priority list should it be for the industry to try and eradicate scammers?
I think that it’s something that should be high on the priority list to heighten the credibility of our sites. You want to obviously give your users the best experience possible and you want the site to work for them. I mean, what are they going to your site for? They’re going there to meet another person and have either some kind of friendship or romantic relationship with another individual that meets the criteria of what they’re looking for. Your end goal is to achieve that for users. Obviously, when someone is tricked and cheated at their most vulnerable time, that’s not a good experience for users, and that’s not the type of reputation site owners want to have amongst users. So I think it’s a very important issue.