Random Thoughts

Spammers, Stalkers, and Trolls – Oh my!

spamWhen I first started blogging years and years ago, comment spam started becoming such a serious issue that it drove many of my blogging friends completely off the net. These days, if you use appropriate settings and a good 3rd party service, comment spam is a bit easier to control. You still have to be careful, though, especially if you’re new to blogging and don’t always know right away what is real and what is spam. Know, too, that the more popular your blog becomes, the more spam you will encounter.

I personally use WordPress with Akismet – one of the most powerful spam fighters in the business. Since comment spammers come up with new tricks every day, I appreciate that Akismet “learns” as it filters through to determine the good versus the bad and, at least from my experience so far, has never been wrong.

In addition, I recommend selecting some settings that might seem a tad annoying, but are well worth the effort in the end. First of all, I approve all first-time commenters. The reason I originally started do this actually had nothing to do with spam. Blogging is a community – when someone new comments, I want to take the time to visit their blog and see what they’re all about (and possibly add their blog to my reader). Comment approval lets me do that on my schedule. If a comment comes in while I’m busy doing something else, I’m more likely to forget about going back and looking at the commenter’s blog. As a side benefit, this helps catch trolls and spammers who know the general things to avoid that the 3rd party plug ins look for (like multiple links, known/flagged IPs and URLs, etc.).

I also carefully control how and when comments, pingbacks, and trackbacks are allowed. A lot of people don’t realize that comment spam comes in three flavors. I found a good blog post that helps break down and explain comment spam that gives the following definitions to help understand the three flavors:

  • Comments – Comments are created when someone uses the comment form on your blog post to engage with your content.
  • Pingbacks – Pingbacks are automatically created when someone links to your blog post from one of their blog posts.
  • Trackbacks – Trackbacks are manual notifications by one blogger that they have linked to your blog post within theirs. Pingbacks were created to automate this process.

The author of that post suggests turning of comments in 30-60 days, but I actually recommend setting that to 14 days as default and changing it only if you get a good conversation going, or open an post back up for a second 14 days if you reference an old post on which someone may want to add comments.

trollI also recommend requiring commenters fill out name and email. While this may reduce the number of comments you receive overall, the benefit of troll control is worth it. Like comment spam, the more popular your blog gets, the more you’ll have to deal with trolls.

According to Wikipedia, a troll is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, [1] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response [2] or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, [3] often for the troll’s amusement.”

Requiring a name and email won’t stop all trolls, since some feed off the negative attention of everyone calling them a jerk and others simply create fake names and emails, but I find this to be a reliable gate since they then get caught in the “new commenter approval required” trap.

The most important thing to remember when you encounter any link in any kind of spam is to never never-ever click them. There’s so much malware out there you’re almost guaranteed to catch something nasty from it, so don’t take the bait. Believe me, there is nothing they are trying to get you to see is worth your time, attention, or risk of exposing your system to a virus.

MOST of the time, while spammers and trolls are irritating, they’re relatively harmless. There is a point, however, where this behavior creeps into the more nefarious arena of cyberstalking. I have a fan who has followed my every move on the Internets for ages – pushing seven years now.

img_3454My blog’s comment spam filter caught her trolling here on my blog again yesterday (in clear violation of her Cease and Desist) engaging and trying to lure me into visiting her Facebook page. Historically, she has threatened to kidnap our youngest child. She threatened to burn down our house. She has put our names, kids’ names, address, and contact information on social media and in Craigslist ads. She stalks and harasses our kids and has even posted pictures of our grandchildren. She regularly creates fake Facebook profiles to contact us and monitor us. She was so foul on Pinterest that they deleted all of her existing accounts and gave us a special contact so that anything we report could be removed immediately. Once she even faked her own “death” and sent mail to my employer from her “estate” claiming my husband had killed her and threatened to disparage my Fortune 500 employer if the did not fire me immediately. They were not amused. Neither were the FBI or NYC Marathon officials when she threatened to kill me at the end of the race.

As bad as all that sounds, my husband and I feel pity for her more than anything. I have never actually seen or met this woman, but I imagine she’s beyond miserable – she lost her heroin-addicted parents and grew up in foster care; she’s living in a big city single and alone, no kids, no real family to speak of, no job to keep her occupied. While we continue to document every contact for the police records and have become vocal proponents for anti-stalking and anti-bullying measures, we’re largely convinced that her mental health, drinking, money, and other issues will prevent her from ever being able to leave the rent-controlled heaven of Hudson Heights to do actual physical harm. Of course whenever we’re in New York, I’m careful with my posts on social media to never reflect where I am at any moment, just in case. And yes, no worries – we have home security and conceal/carry here in SC, plus we request additional security at advertised public speaking events, just in case she ever goes off the deep end.

If you find yourself in a situation with a cyberstalker on your blog, use great care. Right now, fighting cyberstalkers is a long, tough process. However, while countries other than the US continue to stay ahead in the cyberstalking game, the winds are changing and pressure is rising to force social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar to finally institute measures to protect. As champions of reinterpreting existing laws begin to emerge, so do those fighting to create new laws.

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