Thursday, August 18, 2005

Spambots: the invasion of the comment snatchers

Every now and then there's a certain kind of message that's left on my telephone answering machine. I bet you get them, too: those cozy chatty little communications that try to get you to believe the person leaving it is someone you know, someone you've had dealings with before--perhaps at a bank, a credit card company, or maybe selling insurance. The Voice seems to be implying that he (and it's always a he) has promised to call you back, at your request, and well--here he is. Or perhaps it was you who had promised to get back to him. But no matter. All you have to do now is to call him back, and all will be well. And you'll get a great deal, too, on something-or-other.

There's a certain quality about the Voice that both riles me and amuses me at the same time. It seems to have mastered a tone of studiedly casual friendliness--not too eager, not too formal, just right--but is nevertheless totally and instantly recognizable as utterly phony (Holden Caulfield would be onto him in a second).

The Voice accomplishes this effect though a series of hesitations, trying to sound as though he's not reading from a script. Right. There's a liberal (pardon the word) use of "ummmm"s, many moments in which the speaker seems to hesitate and search his brain for just the right phrase. But the timing is always ever-so-slightly wrong--the hesitation is too long, or too short, or too choppy.

Spambots are the internet equivalent of the Voice, on a computer screen rather than a telephone answering machine. For those of you who don't know what spambots are--as I didn't know, myself, until quite recently, when they began infesting this blog like ugly little weeds in a garden--a spambot comment (or, to be technical, a UBS--an unsolicited bulk comment) is an automatically-generated message sent out to many blogs at a time and deposited, like little turdlike droppings (mixed metaphor, I know, having already called them weeds), in the comments sections of blogs. Spambots masquerade as real people making real comments, although they are no better at this task than the Voice is at seeming to be a person with whom you've already had dealings.

What is their purpose? Same as the Voice's--to make money for somebody, in this case by persuading you to click on a link and thereby inflate the hit counter of a commercial blog, or a blog front (if I'm explaining this poorly or incorrectly, forgive me and correct me--I'm new at this game myself.)

Do spambots work? Hard to believe that anyone falls for them, but apparently they do. And so the answer must be "yes," just as I would imagine the Voice must draw in enough people to justify its continuing existence.

The spambots--like the Voice--are very friendly. But they use a technique that I've never heard the Voice use, and that is flattery. Whoever designs the spambot program knows that we humans are suckers for praise. So the spambots give out a sentence or two that sounds enthusiastic and is apparently music to the ears of many a lonely blogger who's been waiting in vain to receive a comment or two: "You've got a great blog here! I've bookmarked it. Hope you visit mine, http://lawnmowers.blogspot.com. It's all about lawnmowers and other cool stuff like that."

The spambots don't always use the same exact phrases of praise in each post. They are far more clever than that; they vary them. But spambots do very much like the word "stuff," which appears in a great many of their comments. "Stuff" apparently has just the right air of casual inexactness to set the desired tone of seeming sincerity.

I once clicked on one of these spambot sites out of curiosity, despite knowing that the comment was spam and would probably lead me to a dummy site and make money for the spambot designers (my lips are sealed as to the URL of the site, but let's just say the blog had something to do with recipes for a certain dessert). It consisted of two posts--that was the whole blog--each with a short list of recipes.

But that blog had a very active comments section. There were over fifty on one of the posts, as I recall. So it was clear that the spambot had achieved its aim of getting a fair number of people to the site (note how I'm anthropomorphizing the spambot; it's hard not to do so, they seem so pesky and duplicitous). Quite a few of the commenters on the spam blog, however, were not pleased; they posted little messages on the order of "You effing a-hole spambot, get off my blog and never come back"

But a large number of the commenters seemed touchingly grateful. They said things like, "So glad you liked my blog! Come back soon. Thanks for the recipes."

At first I thought these might be second-generation counter-spambots, like in some sci-fi movie, evolving to make war on the original spambots and kill them with kindness. But no, they seemed to be real people with real blogs, seduced by flattery into thinking that finally, finally, they'd found a grateful and appreciative reader in the spambot, which of course they took to be a real person.

I'm not meaning to mock these people. I well remember the times when I was getting a grand total of five readers a day on this blog--and three of them were me, because I didn't know how to block my own IP address; and the other two had reached here in error. So I know what it's like to plod away in isolation and hope to be discovered. But I like to think that even in those days a spambot wouldn't have fooled me.

Now I have the near-daily task--not too onerous as of yet--of plucking the things from my blog. I like to weed the garden--that is, I don't really like it, but it's satisfying, and it feels (and looks) so good when it's over.

[ADDENDUM: As several helpful commenters have pointed out, spambots can be successful whether you click on their links or not. The link itself boosts the site's ranking in Google and other search engines. Ah, the ingenuity of humankind!

By the way, I've already deleted three spam comments on this thread. I let one remain in honor of the post's subject matter--couldn't resist having at least one good example of the genre right here.]

29 Comments:

At 1:20 PM, August 18, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Cool post, I bookmarked it! You should check out... aw man, I just can't do it.

 
At 1:48 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous john moulder said...

What a fun comment, Alex! Hope you read mine, http://comments.blogspot.com. It's all about comments and other cool stuff like that.

 
At 1:49 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

I'm glad to see, Alex, that even spambots have a conscience. It refers my faith in human----or rather, spambot---nature.

 
At 2:00 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous dave s said...

some of the blogs I have been to have something you have to do (put the letter 'f' into a box, eg) to leave your comment. this seems to slow down the bots.

 
At 2:07 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

dave s--I agree. But Blogger, the host of this and so many other blogs, hasn't instituted that sort of system yet. I know I shouldn't complain, since Blogger is free, but it would definitely be helpful if they would do so. Perhaps if all of us Blogger blogs spoke out as one--

 
At 3:13 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous Will Franklin said...

It's not so much that they "work" as much as they improve the google/yahoo ranking for the particular search, whether it's porn, or gardening supplies, or books, or DVDs...

So the more of their links they have out there, the higher their rankings will be in google, even if few people actually click on them.

 
At 4:37 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous terryy said...

neo-
did you see that google was placing ads which promoted a terror monger on rogerl simons site? creepy.

 
At 4:41 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous E.M.H. said...

Movable Type is implementing some anti-spam capabilities. Maybe you'll wanna bug Blogger here to implement some too.

Sure you don't wanna keep the ceiling fan spam around, just for sentimentality's sake?? :-)

 
At 4:45 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous roman said...

First it was unsolicited junk mail.
Later, unsolicited telemarketing. Now we get spam with the recent variant called "blogspam". Where will it end?
Hey, how about a micro-chip embedded directly into our brainstems. This will provide 24/7 access. Hmmm... Just thinking.

 
At 6:15 PM, August 18, 2005, Blogger bill said...

It's the page ranking they are after, not the click. Every link adds to their total and moves the ranking up in google search.

I agree, I wish blogger would have human posting tools, and allow deleting of one comment at a time. Once the bot finds you, you are in trouble. The only way I found to make them go away is disable comments for aperiod of time -- not a good method, but works.

 
At 7:26 PM, August 18, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

I kinda liked ceiling fan man too.

 
At 7:27 PM, August 18, 2005, Blogger Promethea said...

OK, being silly here. But I *do* like your site, and *have* bookmarked it.

 
At 8:00 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You....you....you mean, .... those comments in my blog are not REAL?!

Thanks, I'm going to kill myself now.

 
At 8:31 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. I enjoyed your site and will be back again!
I have a Wedding Photography Northampton UK site/blog. It pretty much covers Wedding Photography Northampton UK related stuff.
Come and check it out if you get time :-)

 
At 8:35 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

Hmmm--was that last comment a real spambot, or just a joke? I was hoping I'd get a real one on this thread--

 
At 8:37 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

I dunno--I think I should just leave those ones up for the ambience, especially the UK Wedding Photography one. You never know when that could come in handy, especially in New England.

 
At 10:02 PM, August 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you look at the source code for the wedding-spam, you'll see a REL="nofollow" placed inside the link. That's how Blogger is trying to stop spam. The big search engines (Yahoo, Google, MSN, others) will see the "nofollow" and not follow the link, and not give the destination extra PageRank.

But this doesn't stop all spammers, since some prefer brute-force, grab-the-eyes spam instead of trying to influence search engine results. And some spammers are just too dumb to realize they're shooting blanks. So, the problem continues.

 
At 10:20 PM, August 18, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

I've been lucky with Blogger not to have targeted yet for comment spam. I have gotten the recorded phone calls as you describe on my answering machine. I wonder if those folks think they're getting around the National and State "do not call" lists I'm on. They're not.

Recently I have been getting robot phone calls that take a moment to activate [dead giveaway] and then a scratchy voice says, "please hold for an important call". Yeah right....I'm gonna' hold for an advertisement. Bozos.

 
At 6:56 AM, August 19, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

- and speaking of spam and non-related things, Neo what are your thoughts on gun ownership, self defense, gun control? This message comes from my spambot self that emerges on occasions while I sleep

 
At 7:36 AM, August 19, 2005, Blogger AmericanWoman said...

Have you tried blocking non-caller ID calls? That usually takes care of most of these nuisance calls.

Just think of it as weed block for you phone!

 
At 7:37 AM, August 19, 2005, Blogger AmericanWoman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11:30 AM, August 19, 2005, Blogger corbusier said...

I started getting some spambots early on when posting. I had just established my blog and then two days later they started coming. I guess it happens more when you have longer comment threads.

 
At 12:15 PM, August 19, 2005, Anonymous meander said...

Spambot, huh? Nice to know the name for it. I had my first experience with one a couple of weeks ago and since I wasn't familiar with the phenomenon, it left me puzzled. There's a blog I check daily ...I like what he links to and his analysis of issues but it seems he almost never gets comments. His comments section had not been user friendly but then he figured out how to make it more accessible and happily announced so on his blog. I went to comments to check out the new and improved technique and saw he already had a comment complementing him on his "stuff" and inviting him and others of like mind to check out the commenter's blog "How nice", I thought, "he has a fan!" And so I linked and, much to my surprise, found myself on a porn site. I felt insulted for the sake of blogger #1...seemed like a creepy invasion of somebody's personal space. So, now I know what it's called....I'm even less lingo savy than you claim to be, neo.

 
At 8:07 PM, August 19, 2005, Blogger Bookworm said...

What I've been getting is something a little different. In my statcounter, I'll click on the "came from" link, and I'll discover that I got three or four hits from a blog I've never heard of. I go to that blog and discover that it's a fake blog advertising something. Apparently the fake blogs link to real blogs to create interest through the stat counters. Sneaky but, in a perverse way, impressive.

 
At 11:09 PM, August 19, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

Bookworm: I've been getting those for as long as I've had a blog. They tend to come late at night and/or on weekends, and they arrive in bunches. Some sort of robotic program seems to release them, so my guess is that, technically speaking, they are also a form of spambot.

 
At 3:44 AM, August 22, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 3:47 AM, August 22, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

Y'all suck. To see how much better a blog can be, come over to http:\\www.blome.com\yallsuck.php and bask in my glory. You can leave stuff like comments, too.


BWAAAAAhahahahahahahahahahahaAAA!!!!
(8-D
My nefarious plan is afoot!

 
At 3:57 AM, August 22, 2005, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

BTW, one thing that can help is to get that tone-thing, which i gather does actually work.

You can put it on your answering machine, too, and get rid of those sorts of calls if nothing else (even without purchasing anything like a call blocker)

I gather what they do is preface any connection with a tone sequence -- the same one that happens if you dial a dead number ("Doo-Daahh-Doo! The number you have reached is not in service..."). Autodialers pick up on that Doo-Daahh-Doo! and assume it's a bad number and skip to the next... I believe they also usually discard the number from their lists.

Hence, if you record that sound and play it back at the beginning of your answering machine message, it throws away most spam calls you don't pick up yourself, as they immediately hang up on you.

I think the blockers you can purchase for direct connect to the phone just do the same thing with all calls, just as they sense you pick up. That's a guess, though, i haven't looked into them.

At some point enough will be wise to this that the spammers will alter their techniques, but for now, I gather they work.

 
At 4:13 AM, August 24, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

They started doing it to my blog, too...YEESH!

 

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