Finding a Mark
One morning, this email showed up in my inbox:
If you have ever partake in an online referral dance, the format of this message should look very familiar.
A person you know (Jessica) sends an email to introduce you to someone else she knows (Donna), in the hope that you can develop a mutually beneficial relationship.
This is a common way that people are willing to spend their social capital. The email intro acts as a tacit endorsement and because you trust the sender, you're more amenable to engage with a stranger.
Of course, the value of the endorsement hinges on how well you know and trust the sender. Somehow, that name, Jessica Evans, did not register. Where do I know her from? Because I have a terrible memory with names and faces, I usually take notes on everyone I meet and the context associated with the meeting.
I quickly look her up in my contacts. Nothing. Search my email archive. Nope. Grep all my documents. Nada. At that point, I'm starting to doubt that I know her. Yet, she emailed me directly and seems to know me, so somehow we must have connected.
Next stop LinkedIn. Conveniently, Jessica added a link to her profile in her email signature. I bring up her LinkedIn profile.
I don't recognize the face in the picture on her profile. She's from the Bay Area, so it's possible that I ran into her at some local event and I don't remember her.
Now, I'm racking my brain. Social connection? Work connection? Family connection? Who do I know who's in the environmental space? I come up empty.
I feel embarrassed. Clearly Jessica knows me and I can't place her. Maybe learning more about what she does will jog my memory.
Next, I take a look at her current company web site, Project GreenWorks.
As expected environmental related project stuff.
I'm still drawing a blank as to how I know Jessica. Never mind. I don't need a corporate story teller and I don't feel compelled to reach out to Donna at this time.
I decide to file the email and move on.
The next day, something pops in my inbox. An email from Donna.
Donna is hinting that Jessica may have told me about her services. Now I really want to know how I'm connected to Jessica so I can ask her directly about it. After all, if Jessica vouches for Donna's work, I want to hear first hand account of her experience.
I decide to reply to Jessica's email.
And immediately get a response.
Bummer. Looks like Jessica is on maternity leave until January 7th. Something does not quite check though. If she is on leave, why did she email me an intro in the first place only a day prior?
Also, this exchange took place in February, so she either should be back to work already, or won't be back for almost another year. In which case, January 7th seems like an oddly specific date for an event occurring a year away.
At that point, my spidy senses are on full alert. I'm more determined than ever to get to the bottom of this.
Unraveling the Web
I head back to Jessica's web site, Project GreenWorks. Upon further inspection, I notice that there is not much substance to it. Various projects are listed but nothing specific. There is no about section, no specific contact information or location for the company. The single site page seems to have been created with Wix, presumably from one of their ready-made template.
A quick whois projectgreenworks.com gives some more insight on the domain name itself:
Whois has started… Domain Name: projectgreenworks.com Registry Domain ID: 2180593026_DOMAIN_COM-VRSN Registrar WHOIS Server: whois.google.com Registrar URL: https://domains.google.com Updated Date: 2017-10-30T22:29:52Z Creation Date: 2017-10-29T18:16:16Z Registrar Registration Expiration Date: 2018-10-29T18:16:16Z Registrar: Google Inc. Registrar IANA ID: 895 Registrar Abuse Contact Email: email@example.com Registrar Abuse Contact Phone: +1.8772376466 Domain Status: ok https://www.icann.org/epp#ok Registry Registrant ID: Registrant Name: Contact Privacy Inc. Customer 1241871728 Registrant Organization: Contact Privacy Inc. Customer 1241871728 Registrant Street: 96 Mowat Ave Registrant City: Toronto Registrant State/Province: ON Registrant Postal Code: M4K 3K1 Registrant Country: CA Registrant Phone: +1.4165385487 Registrant Phone Ext: Registrant Fax: Registrant Fax Ext: Registrant Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ...
Unsurprisingly, the registrant information is kept private. However, the domain was only created in late October 2017. According to Jessica's LinkedIn profile, she's been at Project GreenWorks since May 2010. Seems odd that a company operating for at least 8 years would register their domain name only a few months ago.
Everything smelled very fishy. Who is this Jessica Evans? I can't remember faces, but surely Google search might. I head over to LinkedIn, download Jessica's profile picture and feed it to Google reverse image search.
Bingo. I find many web sites where Jessica's exact same picture appears. The odd thing is that on each one she assumes different identities.
Wow. Jessica's likeness is surely popular on the Internet. How can this be? Her last assumed identity shed some light into this.
She's Judith E. Ming, a world renowned Clinical Psychologist.
Jessica and her alter egos are in fact all originating from a stock photo used in the demo page of the Team Members plugin for WordPress.
It appears that many people used this picture as a cheap way to procure a stock photograph to represent an imaginary person.
This means that Jessica's LinkedIn profile is fictitious. And so is her company Project Greenworks.
So if Jessica is not a real person, who emailed me in the first place? And why?
The Web Spinner
It does not require Sherlock Holmes to figure out that this whole charade was most certainly put together by Donna. She benefits by deceiving perspective clients into thinking that she's being referred to them, as opposed to sending then a cold outreach email.
I have to admit at some level, it's brilliant. And yet, so manipulative and unethical. It's bad enough that many of those other web site I stumbled upon also use stock photo to create fake testimonials, employees or advisors.
It seems another level entirely to want to deceive someone, whom you are seeking to enter in a business relationship with, by pretending they are referred to by a phony person acting as your shill.
Don't you worry they gonna find out? What's your answer when they do?
Donna's LinkedIn profile (assuming this one is real) claims that: "I will put them (numbers, facts, figures, bit and bytes) all through my magic filter and spin them into a golden story."
So is this what it has come to? Such tactics are not creative ways to use the technology or spin a story. They are deceptive and manipulative, and although not illegal, at a minimum violate LinkedIn terms of service that prohibit creating a false identity.
Just because digital make believe artifacts can easily crafted, it does not mean that there isn't an ethical line when it comes to drumming up business.
So next time you push the limits, inch towards that line of right or wrong, get lured by thinking that the end justify the means, ask yourself, is this really worth an extra click, a share, a response?
Because sooner or later, this will catch up to you. And when it does your reputation will be at risk.
At the end, I did reply to Donna. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt and give her a chance to explain or correct me in case I came to the wrong conclusion. I asked her if her story telling approach involved creating fake personae on LinkedIn and fake business sites.
Unlike her imaginary friend Jessica, I never got a reply from Donna. She must be too busy spinning her web of fake stories for other unsuspecting victims.