Click here (First of a two-part article) was also published by The Manila Times on 9 February 2022.
When I saw an image of a nice-looking woman on social media whose hands covered her half-exposed breasts, I instantly clicked it, expecting that she could be flaunting more.
True enough, the click dutifully bared before my lusting eyes a string of videos depicting women—or girls? —who, one after the other, gyrated to a lively music. The main attraction of these clips was not the flimsy shorts they wore or the way they mimicked how most ape-like creatures copulate, at least to me, but rather the way they held the tees that half-covered their tits in a rhythmic upward and downward motion while hands playfully caressed their boobs all the time.
Websites, especially social websites or apps that are heavily loaded with content, are kind enough to solicit consent for implanting “cookies” within users’ devices. Internet users are given the choice to accept cookies or not, and are promised with enhanced user experience should they decide to accept.
These cookies work wonders for platforms that make billions upon billions of monies from ads, like Facebook and YouTube. They create copies of webpages that users visit—called cache—and store them in the browsing libraries of users’ devices. (For seniors like me, this function can be likened to what we called cc—or copy furnished—whenever we wrote printed formal communications then.) So, the next time we re-visit a website, loading time is shortened significantly, because instead of sending afresh all of the content in that website from its remote server to our device, which can be a drag if large image, audio or video files are involved, the files that are stored locally in our device are fetched by the browsing app (Chrome and Firefox, for example). Only the updated content is being sent from the remote servers; the bulk of the data comes from the device we are using, such as desktop, laptop, or smart mobile phones. The ability to load webpages fast is one key element of what constitutes “enhanced user experience.”
Less obvious to internet users is the spying work these cookies deliver to computer algorithms (kindly help yourself with google search, I do not know what that word exactly means). What I think I know is that our browsing behavior, or tendencies, leaves imprints which these cookies pick up. They then send these data back to the servers (sometimes integrated with third-party applications) from where these cookies originated. Patterns are then configured to approximate the kind of person we are, based on images and videos we watch, the webpages we visit, and the links we click.
Because of these spies, somebody at the other end of the galactic universe from where we are, knows which of the millions of webpages out there had caught our attention, and the ones over which we spend most of our internet browsing time on.
When I clicked another link from the same social media site, I was bombarded with images, links and ads that offered related content. One can surmise this targeted assault was still meant for my enhanced user experience and satisfaction. Flashing before me as I scrolled down the page were more of the same sexy content, dating sites, even food supplement that promised to work better than Viagra. Yes, really, these cookies have known years ago that I am a Senior! And it took less than a minute for the algorithms to decide that somehow, I had this gasping desire for sex.
Days later, I noticed that the video about women mashing their breasts had several versions already. You could tell I watched all of them, if saying something about each version is any basis. One went a notch at trying to put in glorious display more flesh and sex simulation. Another one was edited to insert a clip where a chimp could be seen tickled from the massaging of her breasts.
Regardless of how this video varied in content, the aim was obviously the same: to lure browsers into clicking it and to keep them glued to watching it for its entire length.
One more version caught my attention. Having played the clips, somebody at the end (he looked like a gangster, but his words sounded like that of a big brother) delivered a homily. I could not cite the exact words he said, although I might be able to rephrase a summary here. He thanked the women featured in the video for making sex maniacs like him happy. (At one point he dared his viewers to admit that they too, like him, were maniacs.) But, he said, there are PornHub, YouPorn, etc. to which the women could freely upload their videos and nobody would mind. Not here, he continued, in social media, where kids have free access. They can influence young people in developing their social behavior norms as they grow older.
If we forget about morality for a moment and ask if the internet had any redeeming quality, aside from facilitating efficient access to information, I suspect one can find it in the way it has democratized the doors of opportunities for making a living.
There was a time—I think it was in the 1980s—when movie houses attracted quite a following for showing mostly pornographic films. Movie producers made a killing at the box office: huge profits for relatively low-budget films.
Creating visual content like movies goes through a complicated process. It requires the collaboration of a bunch of creative people with different skills sets.
But with social media platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Tiktok, almost everyone can create content and make a living from it. All the creator needs are a mobile phone with a camera and preferably either a pretty face, a one-of-a-kind deformity, an outlandish overall appearance, or a captivating voice. Anything that makes one stand out from the crowd is sure to gather a following in social media, just like how movie houses rake people in during the 1980s.
There are several ways by which today’s content creators make money from social media. One of them is to establish a sizable audience, as indicated for example by page view metrics or the number of followers and subscribers. When those platforms are able to determine that people keep coming back to a page (in the case of Facebook) or to a channel (in the case of Youtube), for example, they lace the content uploaded to those pages or channels with ads. They then split the proceeds from advertising with content creators.
The more creators are able to entice visitors and hook them to view their content, the more chances they have of getting paid for their work. But everything had to start with a click, like I did when I saw the image of a woman with a pretty face.
Click here to know more
Click here to know more (Last of a two-part article) was also published by The Manila Times on 16 February 2022.
The public has been repeatedly warned of what seems to be unlimited ways by which scammers make a living from fraud, using the internet and other digital infrastructures as efficient and discreet communication platforms. But people continue to fall victim to their schemes. And government regulators are partly to blame for how creepy they continue to thrive.
If the internet has democratized the space for creating media content along with the potential for exploiting the commercial value of that content, as well as in the exercise of freedom of expression, it also democratized the insidious ways by which cheaters deceive, mislead, rip off, defraud and virtually rob an unwary public.
The deception can range from benign, if ever such a thing exists, to outright criminal, such as when money is stolen through fraudulent means.
I consider the use of big data to influence consumer behavior as benign deception. Data-driven public relations firms like Cambridge Analytica (CA), which was forced to close shop after it was exposed for using personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users to either edify clients (mostly politicians or consumer brands) or discredit the clients’ competitors. One of its top executives was once quoted as saying that CA “ran all of Donald Trump’s digital campaign.”
An ex-employee of the firm, Brittany Kaiser, was also reported by Rappler.com to have said that “(CA) had a request straight from Bongbong Marcos to do a family rebranding,” among other revelations. The Marcos camp denied there was such a request and even threatened to take legal action against Rappler.
What CA and its kind does may not be as flat-out criminal as robbing is, but it uses deception just the same to get its job done. We have heard more variations of the wicked kind, and one wonders if there was a way to stop the predators from continuing to prey on a helpless crowd.
Towards the later part of last year, there was this flood of text messages offering relatively high-paying job opportunities. At a time when a public health crisis had deprived thousands of a means of livelihood, such messages are heaven-sent. On the other hand, one could sense there was a trap right behind the bait. I also thought this was a novel way to scam; and curiosity being the double-dealing partner of masochism, I got this urge to figure out what the new modus was and go through the maze that every tested trap is made of, even at the risk of losing good money.
The text message had a clickable link that tempted me to know more. I clicked it.
Next came the advice that I contact somebody over at WhatsApp through number +639504170705. The one using the number introduced himself/herself this way:
“We are the Lazada cooperation platform, helping Lazada merchants to promote sales. We have a lot of orders, and you can earn commissions by grabbing orders. Our job is to help online stores increase click-through rates and sales.”
To be able to earn commissions, I needed to create an account through this link: http://www.sky0008.com/#/register?code=N8JNJ4. The next instruction was:
“First, you need to top up 200 pesos to get the mission. This process only takes 5 minutes. Upon completion, you will receive 300 pesos.”
After successful payment of the sign-up fee via GCash (payee account belonged to Jennifer M with mobile number 09674061199), I was instructed to contact somebody through Telegram using this link: https://t.me/Sky1991888. This next contact identified himself as George. His mobile number was +639951448733.
George referred me to the account I just created and showed me a screenshot of the dashboard. His initial instruction was:
“The first step, click make. Step 2: Click automatic order snatching, wait for 3 seconds, the system will automatically start order snatching. The third step is to enter the task hall, click Execute Order, and pay for the grabbed order. The fourth step is to wait for the merchant to process the order and settle the commission!”
This was not the main part of the scam. It was just the confidence-building step of the process. I was asked to order Lazada products worth Php 200. Minutes later, I checked my GCash account and found that Php 309 had just been credited.
I recouped the principal and earned a 5 percent commission. George congratulated me:
“Congratulations on completing your first experience. If you want to continue working for more money, I will submit an application for entry. Do you need it?”
Of course! Who doesn’t need it? I already experienced how the system worked almost magically for me, so I said yes. “I hope I do not lose my pants here,” I added.
The real vaudeville, or budol-budol, followed next. There was a menu that showed me how much profit I could make for each set of Lazada purchases. Example: Buy products worth 500 to earn 150; 1000 to earn 300; 3000 to earn 1000, etc. I could “invest” up to 50k to earn 30K.
From 500, I racked up my bet to 3K; at that point the risk of losing my pants had grown from bantam to feather. I did not need a welterweight-sized threat to show up for me to stop clicking. Although the system allowed me to withdraw the principal plus the amount of commission it promised, I could not move any amount to my GCash account unless I first completed the set of goods that needed to be purchased. I gave up. The robber won and walked away.
At some point one is practically forced to buy more just to be able to recover the funds that had been spent even without the commissions. From Php 500 up, payee was one named Victoria Manalo Ticatic through her Unionbank account number 109421059978.
By email, I requested the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), copy the National Bureau of Investigation, to look into that account and see if something odd was going on with it. At that time, the links I mentioned and the WhatsApp and Telegram numbers were still working. In its reply, the AMLC advised me to file a complaint with the appropriate law enforcement agencies, adding that money laundering was not apparent in my case. After four months, the NBI has yet to acknowledge receipt of my sob story.
I had nothing to complain about. I was just trying to know more. And I learned, aside from the scam that hit me with my consent, another theory of why criminals are often a step ahead of law enforcers. Government regulators are spoon-fed with leads, complete with names and bank account or mobile phone numbers. But they act as if they would rather have somebody else do the complete snooping work for them.