Source: http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,44901,00.html

A few days ago, a spammer purporting to be "fed up with telemarketing" offered the public a sneaky new way to get back at automated cold-calling machines that pester them at all hours of the day.

Remarkably, the suggestion didn't involve cursing out the caller, disconnecting the phone or calling the cops.

Instead, the e-mail writer advised telemarketing-haters to simply go to the website of search engine GoTo.com. Once there, he directed followers to type in the words "auto dialer." Then, click on the top 10 listings, once a day, for a long time.

"If we could get 1,000 people each day to click them, then there's no way they can keep selling their %^&@$#%ing autodialers," he wrote.

Although it sounded like odd advice, the spammer insisted that the mass-clicking campaign would actually work. His reasoning: Companies pay for high-rankings on GoTo's search results. At the time of the spam, the top bidders for the "auto-dialer" category were paying more than $6 per click for each click from GoTo to their site.

As it turned out, the campaign didn't cause any immediate surge in traffic, according to two of the top-ranked sellers of auto-dialing machines. Probably that had something to with the medium used to send out the message, said Jim Harlow, director of sales at Call Center Solutions.

"One of the fortunate things about spam e-mail is it has an attention span life of about a quarter of a second for most people," said Harlow, whose company owns the top ranking on GoTo for the search term "auto dialer."

But while that particular campaign was an apparent flop, GoTo said it's not the first time that scam artists or other hyperactive mouse-clickers have attempted to rack up charges for its customers.

"It's a huge concern," said Stephen Doliov, GoTo's director of loss prevention, who manages a software application and a team of employees dedicated to snuffing out "illegitimate clicks."

When a click is deemed illegitimate, the customer who bought the search term doesn't get charged.

While the most common type of illegitimate click is simply an accidental double-click on a mouse pad, Doliov said he has seen a few instances of competitors trying to drum up costly traffic to rivals' sites. He also keeps a vigilant lookout for suspect clicks from profit-minded GoTo (GOTO) shareholders or havoc-wreaking "script kiddies."

While the threat of illegitimate clicks is nothing new, concerns about the practice are heightened by the growing use of paid search engine listings.

With sales of traditional online banner ads on the decline, search engines are increasingly turning to paid search listings to beef up their bottom line. Often labeled as "preferred listings" or "featured listings," paid placements are included in search results on sites run by AOL, Alta Vista, Yahoo and Terra Lycos (parent company of Wired News), to name a few.

On GoTo, where companies post how much they paid for a particular listing, the most sought-after placements bring in more than $10 a click.


The only trouble is, to get companies to keep paying those hefty fees per click, the pay-for-placement search engine must provide assurance that they have ways to prevent competitors from taking advantage of them.

At GoTo, the software for tracking down suspect clicks analyzes 50 or so data points for each user. Certain kinds of activities -- such as clicking repeatedly on the same link, or systematically clicking every link on a page -- get sorted into the "illegitimate" pile.

It seems the spammer who was out to get the automated dialer companies knew something about the click-tracking software. He advised his audience to click on the top-ranked links only once a day to avoid detection -- a creative strategy that Doliov said might not work, since the software could still pick up a pattern.

But whether a more sophisticated spam campaign could offer better results is unclear.

Despite the fact that most of the public probably is fed up with telemarketing, the anti-auto-dialer campaign apparently failed to inspire.

Part of the reason for that failure may have been that the spam sender's purported motive -- a hatred of auto-dialers -- lacked credibility.

Julian Haight, operator of SpamCop, an anti-spam tracking service, said it seems more likely that the perpetrator was actually working for a telemarketing supply company seeking to do damage to competitors.

A key reason for this conclusion, Haight said, was the vehicle used to put out the anti-telemarketing message.

"It's odd that someone would do that because spamming is so similar to auto-dialing," Haight said.

After all, you'd think that someone who's truly sick of automated messages clogging up their phones would have the same feeling toward unwanted junk in their inbox.