Extortion

The subject matter of this post is a bit unusual. However, the topic is one that can impact anyone who works in the arts, whether commercially or not. In my experience, arts people, on the whole, are fairly honest and trusting. This can make them particularly vulnerable when it comes to the internet, where there are many people who are anything but honest and trusting. So, this cautionary tale; I hope you find it useful.

In addition to Unnatural Light, I have several other web sites. This week I received two emails in less than three hours through the contact form on one of those sites. The contact form is a favorite of spammers and phishing expeditions, but these were different. Both purported to be from content writers and demanded that I order some of their services. If I did not, they threatened to create thousands of backlinks from porn sites to my web site in order to hurt my rankings in search engines. One gave me two days to comply; the other vowed to remove the backlinks once I ordered their services. Interestingly, both had the same contact link although they allegedly came from different people. One, which Gmail had flagged as a probable phishing email, stated that it was the only way the writer had of getting work and asked me to not take it personally because it was “strictly business.” It was the first time that I have ever heard extortion referred to as “strictly business.”

These emails were, I think, delivered by bots. Evidently, these bots did not analyze the web site before posting their emails. Had they done so, they would have discovered that that particular web side uses no written content—it’s photos only. Thus there is no real market for written content, no matter who wrote it.

The second thing the extortionist(s) didn’t know is that this web site is not in competition with other web sites, so SEO (search engine optimization) is not a major concern. The web site was never intended to appear on page 1 of a Google search; it exists for people who already know it’s there. Thus the promise of dropping it in Google’s (or any search engine’s) rankings is not really a significant threat.

My first step was find the technology to prevent bots from sending me mail. Such technology exists, and does not seem all that difficult to implement. I am in the process of doing that; I suspect my volume of mail coming into that contact form will drop dramatically.

My second step was to learn something about malicious backlinks. Although I did not find mention of the sort of extortion I was facing, I found instances of unscrupulous site owners who used the technique against competitors. Evidently it is not terribly difficult or expensive—and it works. Some webmasters who depend upon search engine to drive traffic to their sites reported significant revenue loss after such attacks. Combine that with criminal intent and you have a virulent form of ransomware which targets your web site instead of your hard drive.

As of this writing I do not know whether the threat to my website was a bluff, a bit of phishing, or real. What I did discover is that Negative SEO is a thing and it impacts your search engine rankings. The good news is that there are tools to minimize the probability of such attacks and even ways of dealing with the situation if you have already been attacked. Just Google “malicious backlinks” or “negative SEO,” and you will find everything you need.

Well, everything except the time it takes to implement the tools. It turns out that website security is, in itself, almost a full-time job. You may not be able to protect your web site against all possibilities, but perhaps, armed with this information, you can at least improve the security of your web site.

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Date: Sunday, 15. September 2019 23:07
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