Election deception: The Web's 12 dirtiest tricks

If scammers have things their way--with the help of a dozen sneaky ploys--plenty of ballots will never make it to the boxes.

Political campaigns in the United States are notorious for inspiring dirty tricks and nasty tactics. Now, in the most tech-attuned presidential race to date, the dark art of misleading voters is growing even more malignant than it was in the past.

The Internet adds powerful ammunition to the election scammer's arsenal--and odds are, some of these nasty virtual shots have already been fired your way.

Web of Lies

Election deception is nothing new. For decades, underhanded political operatives have spread lies to impressionable voters--disseminating disinformation about everything from changes in election dates to canceled caucuses. The difference now is that the falsifications are easier than ever to spread.

"You're no longer constrained to a geographical community to impact," says Tova Wang, vice president for research of Common Cause. "Now you can pick your communities by other types of profiles than just where people live."

Add to that previously unavailable level of access the anonymity permitted by the Internet, and you have a situation where unethical (and in some cases illegal) behavior seems likely to go unpunished.

Part 1: Five Nastiest Methods to Persuade Voters Not to Vote

Our dirty dozen tricks start with five deceptive ways that political schemers are manipulating the Web to discourage would-be voters from voting.

1. Inbox Infestation

One of the Internet's oldest tricks has acquired a new political spin. Scammers send mass e-mailings that appear to come from legitimate addresses--often ones belonging to campaign or election officials. The problem? The messages contain inaccurate information. This ploy was used against Mitt Romney during the presidential primaries, and voter rights advocates fear that it could resurface as a way to steer citizens away from the polls.

"Some of the things we've seen in the primary and caucus processes indicate that deceptive attacks have happened, and that certainly similar types of attacks may be attempted for the general election," says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

2. Web Site Wiles

Some scammers have adopted the strategy of orchestrating Web site-based attacks. These may take the form of actual hacks--remember the Obama-Clinton redirect exploit back in April?--but more commonly they involve creating an independent site whose URL suggests affiliation with a candidate or organization but whose content dishonestly promotes a hostile agenda.

"People get domain names that sound like they could be the official campaign names, and then have on there links to all sorts of misinformation and criticism of the candidate," Wang says. "The potential is there...that someone could do the same thing with respect to a secretary of state Web site or the Web site of a voting rights organization."

3. Phony Phoning

Perhaps the fastest growing form of Web deception is in the use of voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) technology. Much as their predecessors did in the phone-bank campaigns of yesteryear, tricksters call unsuspecting voters--this time via the Internet--to try to dissuade them from casting ballots. Unfortunately, VoIP makes these efforts easier, cheaper, and less traceable than ever.

"You can do it in a matter of minutes," Coney says. "The per-call cost is so low that it's minuscule compared to a typical telephone banking service."

4. Texting Tricks

Mobile text messaging has made enormous headway as a campaign tool in this 21st century race, but hot on the heels of the benefits come the abuses. Take, for example, Senator Barack Obama's plan to announce his VP pick via text. It didn't take long for fake revelations to reach the masses--and thanks to the slew of free Web-based texting tools available, it probably didn't take much time or money, either. The same approach could reappear with a message calculated to cause polling-day confusion.

5. Social Network Stunts

Voters, particularly younger ones, spend lots of time on social networks, and the candidates know it--as do the scammers. Observers have already reported signs of misuse, ranging from fake profiles to mass postings of erroneous information, and they are watching for more as November 4 draws near.

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JR Raphael

PC World (US online)

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