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Trolls – Why the Internet is Lousy with Them

December 30, 2013

Online Safety for Professionals

Scammers hiding behind fake profiles remind me that the people I meet online are a lot like people I meet in “real life.”

It may seem at first that this is someone who is already part of my professional circle. It may look as if someone I know sent them my way.

These new contacts proffer relevant qualifications and titles, or claim membership in an organization I support. It may seem that this is someone who is harmless or good to know. Some seem to have work available for me. Too often, I discover that I have let a troll, spammer or faker in to my online professional life.

Some trolls flood social networking groups with deals on shoes, offers of easy credit, or weight-loss stuff. Others post defamatory, self-serving or misleading comments, under cover of a fake persona. Trolls are like vermin; if you let one in, they will invite their friends and soon your group is lousy with them. Groups members lose confidence in an administrator who lets scammers in to a “closed” group.

From the embarrassment of having been duped, to time wasted applying for fake jobs, scrambling to remove defamatory comments and spam — connecting with a fake person online can be one little click of trouble.

Opening the Door to Trouble

Taking a moment to examine a friend request, or request to join a closed group, can help to restrict trolls and their trolling tricks. This includes age-old techniques that our ancestors employed to assess the relative risks of letting strangers into their lives and homes.

Here are some suggestions for keeping your groups, pages, blogs and websites troll-free.

Step One: Trust Your Instincts
    The human brain is an amazing tool, honed over millennia. Our brains chronicle information our entire lives, storing details, making decisions, revising estimates, assessing risk. What we call “hunches” are actually the output of that database, continually analyzed below our consciousness.

    If you have any suspicion at all about a person online: act on it.

    Trust those hunches, those “spidey-sense tingles,” those seemingly baseless suspicions. Remember, if a deer in the forest hears a twig snap, it does not stand still, wondering whether it is overreacting, whether some creature’s feelings will be hurt if it runs. No. It bolts, sounding an alarm as it flees the perceived danger.

    When you get a request from someone you don’t know, ask yourself: who is this person, what do they want, and what are the risks if I let the wrong one in?

Step Two: Look for Clues
    Scammers are good at what they do, but like legitimate people, they are not perfect. They leave tell-tale signs, a sort of bread-crumb trail to follow, even if they are using fake names, online avatars, or “online handles.”

    Look with a critical eye at the information the person has provided. You would check the credentials of a door-to-door salesperson or service contractor. Treat your online home the same way.

    Signs of trouble include fake names and poor writing.

    Cultural variation aside, some trolls don’t try all that hard to come up with a fake name. “Lady Blue,” “Mr. Sunshine Karma,” “Cute Kittylol” – these are lazy trolls. Spelling and grammar mistakes can be a big clue that something is not right. Would a legal professional misspell “legislation”? Spell their own name different ways in one post? Get the name of their school wrong?

    Vague or silly job titles pique my curiosity. Following hunches, I confirm designations and names at governing bodies’ directories. I check to see if those letters after the name actually mean anything, and whether an affiliated organization is real.

    If those clues raise suspicions, take the next step and do a bit of sleuthing.

Step Three: Put on Your Detective Hat
    It’s amazing what you can find out, fast. Some things to check out:


    • Look at the profile. Are the details vague, irrelevant or non-existent? Was it created a few days ago? A recent profile is a red flag; trolls can create hundreds of profiles and use them up like “burner phones.” Check the profile photo. Does it look real? Is it a gender mismatch? Does it look like it came from a stock image service? Is it a random party-girl photo, pulled off the web?

    • Check the person’s friends and connections. Are these real people, whom you know?
      Are their connections suspiciously crafted to create an impression of trustworthiness? Is there any obvious reason for this new person to reach out to you, or does it come out of left field?

    • Google the name and any other information that is readily available. Does the person’s website resolve, with relevant content? Does this person or company appear in any directories? Is the phone number real?

    • Verify their claims. Does the person list an implausible level of experience? Suggest they are familiar with processes and procedures that are out of date or do not exist? Claim to have done work, that you know they have not? (Some people will claim to have worked on a project that included you and a few others, or to have been involved with an organization that you started!)

    • Google the email address. See if it exists, and whether it has been flagged by spam-watch sites. Does the email address differ from the profile name? (“Phil White” using the address “”) Is the originating country a mismatch? (Canadian employer or school listed, but an email address that ends in country codes .in, .ro, ci – India, Romania, China)Read comments the person has made at other groups. Are they offensive or weird?

    • Look up the IP address for an emailed message. Has the address been flagged by spam-busting sites? Does it originate in another city or country than the one the sender claims? If you have a website, have you had suspicious messages from this address before? Do several people send messages from the same IP address, under different names?


      Step Four: Take Appropriate Steps
        Sometimes good people make careless mistakes. If it looks like mere sloppiness, or that the troll suspect may not understand the importance of using a real name and true information, you could just send an email explaining your position. A good person, a real person, will understand your caution and politely take steps to address your concerns.

        But if too many things don’t add up, if someone is making claims that are not true, if they try to strong-arm you into opening the internet door – keep your distance and sound the alarm. If you see the same fake name popping up in groups or pages, alert the administrators.

        It takes just a few minutes to check out a potential new contact, or invitation, but a troll in an online group, page or community will waste hours of your time, and make the site seem less reliable.


      More about online safety:

      Police information for protecting yourself online


      Elizabeth LeReverend is a paralegal in Ontario, where the profession is regulated. A legal writer, editor and researcher, Elizabeth publishes Paralegal SCOPE Magazine, the only source of news, features and information for Canadian paralegals.


      © Copyright Elizabeth LeReverend and Paralegal SCOPE, 2013.


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