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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

A big bite of a bad Apple

How Click Farms sign up bored housewives and kids to click on advertising links and earn dough. So what does that have to do with Apple?

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Click Farms pay students money for bogus clicks on advertising banners and links
Earn a tidy sum clicking on ad links/ illustration: Verghese

OWNING an Apple product is the Holy Grail of hi-tech hedonism and sensory abandon, be it a lowly MacBook or the ingenious 4G iPhone, craftily missing an antenna and any ability to communicate, thus offering its owner the sort of seclusion and exclusivity Nokia and Eriksson can only dream about. No matter an Intel chip now lurks beneath the brushed aluminium Mac facade with all manner of Windows Trojan horses champing at the bit.

My stride quickened as I approached the Apple service store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Okay, I wasn't buying anything, just getting my old titanium PowerBook G4 fixed. Since Apple doesn't offer warranties over three years for its products, I have a mountain of sleek, but utterly dead, equipment lying around the office. This is another Apple perk. Expensive junk that lends a regal museum-like quality to the home and office.

The fumes hit me a full ten feet before I had reached the entrance to the store. Smelly socks, sweaty armpits, exuberantly applied deodorant, coffee, smoke, bad breath and more sweat. The Great Unwashed rolled over me like a tsunami. I staggered into a room full of acned teenagers all waiting with a ticket number in hand, and joined the queue. So what do techie foetuses and I, a silver-haired 54-year-old, have in common? Quite a bit apparently. Apple for one.

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What really brought us together, reverently holding our strangely silent devices, was the Internet. All newfangled gadgets have in common the ability to surf the Web and communicate. A vigil at any gadget service store then is a communion of sorts, a brotherhood of shared gigabyte grief and mourned megapixel memories.

It is likely dad will click on Women Who Do Unspeakable Things and end up on an auto dealership site…

The Internet has irrevocably changed our lives. Information is no longer something to wait patiently for or, God forbid, shell out cash over. It is free and accessible instantly, from anywhere, anytime. Small wonder the Internet is the preferred channel of communication for ADD kids and cabbage ward geriatrics alike.

The torrent of random material is liberating. It is at once powerful, practical, poignant, prurient, perplexing, partisan, and poisonous. Understanding all the shades of content and separating the trustworthy from trash is a fulltime job. While tots work out binomials online, their fathers wrestle with how to pay Natasha in Novosibirsk as she expertly reveals her assets, insouciantly and incrementally, proving that a weak rouble and a declining GDP are no barrier to attracting a steady stream of corporate dollars to Russia. During the course of these two transactions it is probable that the child will click a Disneyland link and get diverted to a porn portal while the dad might click on Women Who Do Unspeakable Things to find himself on an auto dealership site. Misspelled links designed to trick and divert children who can't spell, and adults, whose spelling is worse, are a common form of Internet fraud.

With the passage of the Truth in Domain Names Act in the USA, a man was recently sentenced to 30 months in prison for Internet fraud. His specialty? Manufacturing over 3,000 domain names misspelling Teletubbies, Disneyland and Britney Spears, specifically to con kids into clicking into adult sites, generating revenues with every diverted click.

Scams ranging from phishing (to deceive surfers into giving up sensitive data like credit card pin numbers) to click fraud, are rife. On the Wild West Web, marshals are few and gunslingers legion. Click fraud is big business. Advertisers chasing mass clicks to prove to their bosses that marketing dollars are being wisely, and measurably, spent, are particularly easy to dupe. This pursuit is fraught with peril at the outset, simply because the clickiest people tend to be kids with no money and zero purchasing power. The more mature the audience and the more wealthy it is, the fewer the potential clicks. Clicks are not an accurate measure of a discerning or affluent audience. Anyone in any doubt needs just compare empirical click data within their own family. Kids click constantly and fearlessly, unworried about drive-by virus downloads. They also click to make money. Here's how.

Advertisers chasing mass clicks to prove to bosses that dollars are being wisely spent, are easiest to dupe

With ample advertising dollars chasing clicks, and a complex myth built around that simple tap on a mouse, fraudsters have set up a thriving business. It's called CLICK FARMS. Companies, thinly disguised as data-entry businesses or sometimes blatantly honest, recruit bored housewives and schoolchildren around the world to click on advertising links. Website owners under duress to "perform" can easily sign up the services of a click farm to direct traffic from specified countries to click on banners and paid text links on their sites thus creating the impression of massive response. Fraudulent human clicks are very hard, if not impossible, to weed out and search giants like Google, Yahoo and Bing are tearing their hair while dealing with lawsuits.

On pay-per-click (PPC) models where advertisers bid for high-value keywords to appear among the first few "sponsored links" whenever a specified search string is requested by a surfer, vulnerabilities are obvious. Rivals can click away your capital in an afternoon with you, the victim, shelling out to Google for every click on your paid link. PPC advertisers usually specify a maximum spending budget per day and once this is used up, they drop off the chart and the next clamouring advertiser climbs up to suckle on a viewer's clicking finger. Some click farms even offer a fiendish "Google bomb" service wherein a disgruntled advertiser, outbid by a rival on a sponsored link line-up can, for a small sum, generate an avalanche of bogus clicks to topple his rival and thus move up the ladder. Being higher up on the page means more visibility and more potential business.

Domain owners are at risk too. Sites purporting to be accredited Domain Name Registrars, often based in China, will send you solicitous notes claiming that some company has applied to register a host of domain names peppered around your root name. Say you own apoplectic.com, the rival bidder may have purportedly sought to register apoplectic.com.cn, apoplectic.hk, apoplectic.net.cn, apoplectic.tw and so on. The list is limited only by the creativity of the scammer. These registrars claiming to be protecting your trademark will suggest that you, the rightful owner, register these combinations first. This stampedes gullible people into excessive suffix registration through fraud. The “hostile” company is likely fictitious. Keep a close eye on Internet chatter for domain name scams.

Estonia's entire Internet network was taken down by a bot attack in 2007. That's a country, not a website

Then there are “bot” attacks. These can particularly savage.  Hackers deliver zombie bots (or automated scripts) by stealth to computers around the world through malicious programmes and dodgy sites. A vast network of sleepers can then be activated at a stroke by the master hacker to start accessing a particular domain, all at once, causing that domain’s servers to crash with this unmanageable onslaught of traffic. Estonia’s entire Internet network was taken down by a massive botnet attack (also called a DDoS or distributed denial of service) in 2007, crippling several services and operations. That’s a country, not a website.

As Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." The Web has freed us from our confines. But we need to tread carefully indeed.

With my old pal the PowerMac G5 supercomputer unhappily retired, my clicks and earnings are down. For now I'm stuck with the smelly socks. What about you?

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