Scams & shams: The trouble with social networks

It's hard to understand who in their right mind would want to incur the wrath of "Triple H," the intimidating superstar of professional wrestling. But when a poser created a fraudulent MySpace account in Triple H's name, it wasn't the wrestler that the perpetrator had to contend with.

The smackdown came from someone who was actually watching the wrestler's back - Lauren Dienes-Middlen. She's vice president of intellectual property at World Wrestling Entertainment, the Stamford, Conn., company that owns the trademark. WWE notified MySpace, which terminated the account immediately.

The growth of social networks has brought a variety of threats that can potentially damage a brand's good name. Most of those threats aren't new, however. Social networks have simply become another attack vector, whether for spreading malware, launching assaults on an individual's or company's reputation, or creating impostor social networking sites that divert traffic away from the brand's legitimate sites.

The Triple H incident wasn't the first time that an impostor had commandeered the name of a trademarked WWE personality. "We've had a lot of impersonations," mostly on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, says Dienes-Middlen. In fact, it's enough of a problem that Twitter recently launched an initiative to verify some accounts.

A Good Offense

To protect themselves, businesses should defensively register company brand names and trademarks -- and variations on those names -- on the major social networking sites, just as they do with domain names, to protect against cybersquatters, says Pamela Keeney Lina, an intellectual property lawyer at Alston & Bird LLP in Atlanta, who has written about protecting intellectual property on social networks.

Social media cybersquatting is where domain name cybersquatting was 10 years ago, says James Carnall, manager of the cyberintelligence division at security monitoring firm Cyveillance Inc. People use variations on brand names to open accounts on social networking sites, in hopes that companies will pay them to relinquish control of the accounts.

He points to the online market Tweexchange as a prime example of how trading in social network names is a growing business. Unlike domain names, however, social networks have no central authority like ICANN or established processes for reclaiming brand names from cybersquatters.

Some impostors are simply overzealous fans, but Dienes-Middlen is more concerned about scammers and those who sell pirated videos and poor-quality knockoff WWE merchandise, which robs the company of revenue and cheapens its brands. Those sites lure users through social networks, spam, abusive search engine marketing and other channels. Last year, WWE shut down 3,200 online auctions of phony WWE products with an estimated street value of $16 million to $33 million.

During one Wrestlemania pay-per-view event this spring, WWE was able to use social networking sites to identify a number of unauthorized Web sites that planned to stream the event live. It also found 8,600 sites that had made pirated copies or footage of the event available after the fact. "Counterfeiting operations are highly organized, are very global and are picking up steam because of the economy," says Liz Miller, vice president of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council.

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Robert L. Mitchell

Computerworld (US)

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