Essay: Engineering the Future V&A Digital Design Weekend 2016
Title: Engineering the Future – As part of V&A Digital Design Weekend 2016
Title: “Let’s talk business” and “Megacorp” – Examples of artistic anti fraud activism
About the authors:
KairUs is a collaboration between two artists Linda Kronman (Finland) and Andreas Zingerle (Austria). Their work focuses on human-computer and computer-mediated human-human interaction with a special interest in transmedia and interactive storytelling. Since 2010 they have worked with the thematic of internet fraud and online scams, constantly shifting focus and therefore approaching the theme from a number of perspectives. Subjects of their research are online scammers, vigilante communities of scambaiters, and their use of storytelling and technology. Besides the artworks the artists also publish research papers related to their projects, and through workshops they contextualize their rather focused research topics in broader discourses such as data privacy, activism and hacking culture, ethics of vigilante online communities and disruptive art practices.
General tactics of advance fee fraud can be traced back to the early 16th century, where face-to-face persuasion known as the ‘Spanish prisoner scheme’ was widely used to trick victims. Confidence tricksters would approach potential victims to tell them that they are in correspondence with a wealthy person, who is imprisoned in Spain under a false identity. The scheme continues when the trickster raises money to bail out his friend and promises financial rewards to gullible supporters who can help him to reach the requested security deposit. Once money gets exchanged, complications arise and further payments are requested until the victim runs out of money. Over centuries the basic scheme has adapted to new modes of communication: letters, telegraph, fax, phone and Internet.
There are online communities of so called ‘Scambaiters’ who fight back against online criminals. The act of scambaiting arose as a counterattack to ’419 scams’. This online vigilante community of scambaiters investigates scam emails and implements social engineering techniques to document, report or warn potential victims. Scambaiters are anti-fraud activists who often use similar tactics as scammers, e.g. using social engineering methods to uncover practices of internet scammers. Scambaiters have their own personal motivations to justify their actions. Their motives can range from community service and status elevation to revenge for being a victim of a similar scam in the past. Through the documentation and sharing of these plots, scambaiters waste the scammers’ time, exploit their resources and raise awareness about online fraud. They organize themselves on forums like thescambaiters.com or 419eater.com, the latter with over 62000 registered users from all over the world. These forums focus on everyday scam types and members follow their own strategies and ethics when in contact with scammers.
Recent publications that address scambaiting communities mainly focus on how scambaiters humiliate scammers e.g. by posting ridiculous photos of them on online forums and putting them on a ‘virtual pillory’. In our research we found that the strategies to fight online fraud go beyond public shaming. Over the last years, we followed these communities and created several media art installations that show the activist methods of scambaiting communities. In the following paragraphs, we want to present some of our recent works that relate to strategies and technologies used in scams and scambaiting.
Let’s talk business:
‘Let’s talk business’ is a multi-channel audio installation that enables the visitor to listen to scammers who try to lure potential victims into advance fee payments. Their phone numbers were extracted from a Scam Email database, analyzed by country, and categorized by scam scheme. Once potential victims called them, the scammers had the chance to tell their persuasive stories. Using SPAM-cans as listening devices the visitor can listen through the scam stories of once-in-a lifetime business opportunities, distant relatives’ beneficiaries, big lottery fortunes or helping people in need. A SPAM-can with two buttons allows the visitor to be connected with random scammers and put their persuasive abilities to the test. According to Merriam-Websters dictionary, the naming of unwanted mass advertisement as ‘Spam’ originates from ‘the British television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which chanting of the word Spam overrides the other dialogue’. The sketch premiered in 1970, but it took until the 1990s for mass emails, junk phone calls or text messages sent out by telemarketers to be called ‘spam’. While most of the scam emails tend to end up in the SPAM folder, we chose to mediate these stories through physical SPAM-cans.
In many of today’s fraud schemes phone numbers play an important role. Fake businesses or personas can appear more legitimate, and the phone numbers enable a faster, more personal contact to the victims. When scammers setup a fake email address at free webmail services like Gmail or Outlook, popular VoIP services like Google talk or Skype are included and can be used for free. These tools enable the scammers to hide their identities with fake names and bogus business websites. With the analysis of a sample probe of 374 emails we wanted to see which business proposals are commonly used and how believable their proposals sound once we contacted them by phone.
In the last years the web has been increasingly used for end user e-commerce to buy goods and services. As our everyday consumption activities move online the number of deceptive websites grow. According to research fake websites comprise nearly 20% of the entire web, and 70% of “.biz” and 35% “.us” domain pages analyzed in a sampling of 105 million web pages were fake. Scammers use them to pose as trustworthy and professional with the intent to trick people. An anti-fraud activists group called ‘Artists against 419’ hosts the biggest open-access database of fake websites. As of March 2016, this forum has over 4800 registered users and on average 35 fake websites are reported each day.
Our research of the ‘Artists against 419’ database led to a broader investigation of how this community tracks fake business websites and reports them. Additionally we wanted to visualize the database by collecting a sample of 1000 fraudulent companies under the umbrella of one big evil corporate conglomerate that wants to take over the world. Inspired by its equally powerful counterparts in science fiction we decided to call it ‘Megacorp.’. The term was coined by William Gibson and inspired many other authors of the dystopian cyberpunk science fiction genre to create megacorps in their fiction, amongst others the Tyrell corp. (Do Androids dream of Electric sheep), Encom corp. (Tron), Weyland-Yutani (Alien series), Cyberdyne skynet systems (Terminator).
‘Megacorp.’ visualize the overall business segments and countries where these fraudulent businesses claim to be present. As a part of the project an interim report was published and in an exhibition set-up visitors have the chance to browse locally through the repository of the fraudulent websites. Additionally a corporate presentation video and a location reconnaissance video reflect both the imaginary and the real world outreach of the Megacorp.
To reach the sample of 1000 companies the data gathering process took several months. From September 2014 to April 2015 the aa419-database was visited on a daily basis and websites were automatically downloaded using a site scraper tool. The scraped websites were analysed and categorized according to business segment, street address, used colour, registered city and country. Once we reached our goal and gathered 1000 companies we grouped our initial 20 business segments down to 10. Great deals of our holdings are clones of existing companies websites published under non-legit domains. These websites, specially in the Banking & Finance segment, are used for phishing, and according to the Anti-Phishing Working Group’s 2H2014-Report there were at least 123,972 unique phishing attacks worldwide during the second half of 2014, which occurred on 95,321 unique domain names. When analysing different cities and countries we focused on the top 5 and examined what the division of business segments were in these geographical areas.
To visualize the gathered data and to tell a compelling narrative about the fake business conglomerate we decided to re-enact a corporate presentation in form of a fair booth. To achieve this we highlighted the main parts of the data visualizations on roll-up posters and created a corporate image show-reel that gives a fast overview of key figures and the global outreach. We present all the gathered material in form of an interim report and on a website visitors can browse through the 1000 acquired companies alphabetically, sorted by country and by business segment. Another video showed some of the companies websites and our attempt of physical reconnaissance where we visited the addresses where the companies claimed to have their headquarters to see what is actually there. During the ‘credible fiction – deceptive realities’ workshop we extended this video with a virtual reconnaissance of companies addresses. In the media competence workshop that was tailored to test the anti-fraud activist tools with diverse participants, we mainly used Open Street Map, Google maps and local company registrars to figure out which companies are registered at certain addresses. The collected screen-shots were added to the existing video, adding the outcome of the workshop to the exhibited installation.
By combining art and scambaiting we consider our works as a type of artivism, a genre where art and activism fuse. The presented artworks have been exhibited at festivals, in galleries and at academic conferences. They also function as a basis for discussion to raise awareness, as we have presented them as case studies in a series of workshops that we organize in various contexts. The research and exploration of various scambaiting methods for the artworks has given us a wider view on what scambaiting can be. A reflective scambaiter with the right intensions can be seen as a disruptive anti-fraud activist, who jams the scammers workflow and alerts potential victims by exposing the scam schemes. This can be done in discussion forums, by collecting databases of dubious emails and websites as well as through artworks. Scams and fraud has been around for a long time, this dark side of the net will not disappear. While actors are diverse and scam strategies continue to evolve we need to constantly review our approaches to scams, scammers and scambaiting.