Much of the policymaker interest in legislation and regulation impinging on the ability of survey, opinion and marketing researchers to collect, use and share personal information is driven by concern about the many frauds and scams targeting consumers. Such abuse also hurts respondent willingness to participate in research.

Microsoft recently hosted an event to address what companies and policymakers can do, and are doing, to deal with such scams, whether run online, by telephone, or other means. According to Microsoft, already this year over 3 million consumers have been affected by what they refer to as “tech scams.” The main modes of attack include cold calling, malware and pop-ups, and misleading advertising with fake numbers. Cold calling is the most aggressive and most prevalent means of attack. Callers often pose as tech support for large companies and will charge upwards of $200-500 for their fake services.

What is being done to stop the scammers
Microsoft has been doing extensive support training, proactive outreach, and ad-removal from their search engine Bing. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), charged with prosecuted unfair and deceptive acts and practices, plays a key role filing civil actions against scammers to protect consumers. A great example is the FTC’s successful action against a telemarketing scam that masqueraded as a research campaign from a real research company (sales under the guise of research, AKA "sugging"). The FTC also plays an important role in educating consumers, while private organizations like AARP reach even farther.

What drives the pervasiveness of the scams
First and foremost, scamming is very profitable. Scam artists’ ranks dwarf the number of enforcement actions against them, because enforcement is time consuming and costly. Pragmatic issues hinder tech companies from being able to register all variations of their firm’s domain name, which can get snapped up by nefarious individuals. Also, many scam artists operate overseas, such as in India and the Philippines, making them more difficult to prosecute.

There are just not enough deterrents in place to stop scammers.

What can be done and what researchers can do to help
Some ideas raised during the Microsoft event for stopping these scammers included increased criminal and civil sanctions, increased public education of consumers to help them avoid getting conned, the creation of an anti-scamming task force, and using payment systems as a choke point for scammers.

However, because the prevalence of scam artists hurts respondent cooperation and inspires a lot of policymaking unfriendly to the research profession, it is in our interest to help as well. When you encounter suspicious behavior, consider calling it out. When you get scammed, report it to the authorities with as much detail as possible. Not all purveyors of fraud and abuse can be brought to heel, but if you don’t speak up, they certainly never will.