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How I Earned $10,000 Dollars A Week Through The Net 16 October 2002 Edition
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Like most net users, my mailbox gets its fair share of spam. Many of these messages promote shonky work-at-home schemes, creams and potions designed to enlarge or reduce certain parts of your anatomy, no-effort university degrees, and a raft of other dross.

One component many of these spams have in common are the anonymous testimonials that they include.

One such spam I received last week included just such a testimonial from "Gus" who apparently lives somewhere in Virginia, USA.

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Gus was very pleased to endorse a system that involved the republication of a bunch of extremely valuable "marketing reports" and he claimed to have earned an average of $10,000 per week for the last two months.

But Gus isn't the only one lending his name and praise to shonky products and services.

Perhaps one of the very first instance of a fictional testimonial to be seen on the Net was that of the infamous Dave Rhodes.

Those readers who have been using the Net for more than five or six years will remember Dave. Many millions (probably billions) of chain emails have circulated around the Net carrying his testimonial as to how his life changed from poverty to unheard of wealth after he followed the instructions to "Just send $5 to the name at the top of this list and forward this message to ten others..."

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So where am I leading with this?

Well I think it's safe to say that any company which uses faked or anonymous testimonials to try and sell its products or services must be viewed with some suspicion. After all, if people really were impressed enough to provide such praise, then surely they'd be prepared to identify themselves and stand behind those comments.

It came as a surprise to many (and no surprise to some) therefore, that Microsoft have been caught out using a form of this dubious marketing tactic.

On October 9, Microsoft published an anonymous testimonial on their website titled "Confessions of a Mac to PC Convert".

This testimonial purported to be the experiences of a very attractive young freelance writer who is delighted to discover that Windows XP "gives me more choices and flexibility, and better compatibility with the rest of the technology world" bla, bla bla...

Suffice to say that the very positive, instructional, and PR-ish tone of the testimonial set alarm bells ringing as to its authenticity. And then there's the fact that the picture of the writer shows her to be a drop-dead gorgeous brunette.

And it's that last point that finally exposed Microsoft's little scam.

An eagle-eyed Net user realised that they'd seen that picture before -- and was able to verify that the photo was actually just a stock image from an online photo library Then, when they posted this fact to a SlashDot online forum, all hell broke loose.

Now at this point, Microsoft could have simply fessed up and said "we didn't have a picture of the person who wrote the testimonial so we used a stock image" -- but they didn't.

What did they do instead? They pulled the whole page -- lending weight to the suspicion that the whole thing, including all that praise, was faked.

Then the Associated Press did some sleuthing and discovered the author of the document, on which the testimonial was based, to be one Valerie G. Mallinson.

How did the AP find out the writers identity? Well they simply downloaded the MS Word file that accompanied the original testimonial and poked around a little. Information such as the writer's name and other clues to her identity were embedded in the document info section.

Now here's the really suspicious bit.

It turns out that Ms Mallinson works for a PR company that includes Microsoft amongst its larger clients -- now there's a coincidence, right?

Perhaps Ms Mallinson really did see the light and jump effortlessly from her Apple into the wonderful world of XP without a single problem -- but there are also those who suggest that the testimonial is a total work of fiction (hence its removal from the Microsoft site) and that, faced with a massive PR disaster, Ms Mallinson's boss might have asked her "do you really want to keep your job honey?"

Whichever way you look at it -- faked or anonymous testimonials almost certainly do more harm than good. If a product can't be sold purely on its merits and the honest comments of satisfied customers then one really must wonder whether it's something you ought to buy at all.

And I wonder... will my next spam be from Microsoft as they try to tout their latest product: Windows XP breast enlargement cream?

If you want to see the original article, there's a cached version at Google (you need to disable Javascript because they're redirecting it to a "not found" page) but, since that could be pulled at any moment, I've also posted a 320Kbyte screen dump of the article

If you want to have your say on the contents of today's column then please do so. Only comments marked "For Publication" will (if I have time) be published in the readers' comments section.

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Security Alerts
Microsoft posts four new security alerts (CNet - 3/10/2002)

Flaw in Word can allow file theft (TheAge - 13/09/2002)

File-name flaw threatens PGP users (ZDNet - 06/09/2002)

Microsoft reveals security hole (NewsFactor - 02/09/2002)

Microsoft plugs critical Office holes
(ITWorld - 22/08/2002)

Virus Alerts
Virus pursues your credit card details (ZDNet - 02/10/2002)

Linux server worm exploits known flaw
(VNuNet - 13/09/2002)

Worm spreads through KaZaA network, again (TheReg - 22/08/2002)

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