Craigslist Enlists Police, ISPs, and Community to Fight “Spamvertising”

“Any idea why I was flagged?” inquires one poster. “Flag help please!” cries another frustrated soul. The flag help forum on Craigslist abounds with posts like these. Since the free classifieds site recently introduced new tools to wrangle loan scammers, prostitution peddlers, and just-plain greedy marketers, it’s no wonder transgressors are getting roped in.

“We’re serious about going after the bad guys,” said Craigslist founder and customer service rep Craig Newmark. He can say that again. Not only does the site rely on ISP insiders to assist in stomping out perpetrators of what he calls “spamvertising;” Newmark said cyber crimes-related police units around the country work to nab offenders, too. In fact, he added, some Web crime officers keep Craigslist staff numbers on file.

ClickZ News spoke with the champion of a humane Web last week during his coffee break, following a session of bad-post removal and customer assistance. The presence of corrosive Craigslist posts — anything from fraudulent loan listings to postings by travel or porn affiliate sites — “has been a constant problem there for some time,” said Newmark. “The community does help out in a big way,” he added, pausing to feed a treat to neighborhood Boxer pup, Mingus.

The free classifieds site has become a venue for small businesspeople and marketers hoping to reach them there. Enterprising coders have created software to automate Craigslist posts, and consultants have made a business of advising sellers how to market on the site.

“Over the last two years, there’s been a huge influx of professional marketers” using Craigslist, said Shannon Lewis, director for police auction site PropertyRoom.com, and author of “The Unofficial Craigslist Book, Proven Ways to Market Almost Anything Using Craigslist.org.”

“Craigslist turns your neighborhood furniture wholesaler into an aggressive marketer,” said Lewis, who said she’s sold almost 1,000 books in the five months her electronic tome has been available. Lewis hopes her book will influence marketers to avoid so-called black hat tactics when using Craigslist. “I think we [marketers and Craigslist] can coexist in a smart way,” she said. Disregarding the site’s rules is “a short term strategy,” continued Lewis.

JupiterResearch Analyst Emily Riley concurs. “To violate the code of ethics on a site where people feel strongly about the brand…It’s like going into a kindergarten class and saying you don’t like crayons.” In other words, the loyal Craigslist community is bound to resent the presence of naughty marketers.

A team of 10 customer service staffers wades through posts to determine their egregiousness and files reports of persistent abuse with ISPs that provide Internet access to alleged bad actors. Newmark himself submits about 10 reports per day, not including the reports from other service reps. Typically, if an ISP agrees someone is an abuser it will contact that person and, in rare cases, may block their IP address from posting to Craigslist, or may even cancel their account altogether.

“I get great help from Comcast, Cox, and AT&T…and I’ve always gotten good help from Earthlink,” said Newmark, adding he has sympathetic contacts at AOL and Microsoft, too.

“We have investigated a couple of [Craigslist] complaints,” said Verizon spokesperson Bobbi Henson, adding, “If someone can present us with documentation that someone is engaging in abuse…through an investigation, we will take action.” The company has never blocked a user’s IP address from accessing Craigslist, however. “We’re really not in the business of blocking access,” she said.

Newmark named Verizon as an ISP he’d like to have closer contact with, along with The Planet and BellSouth (now owned by AT&T). The Planet has been investigating a Craigslist report involving a spammer using one of its Internet service resellers, according to PR director for The Planet, Yvonne Donaldson. “We will work with our customer [the reseller] to resolve the problem,” she said. “The issue will be resolved, I can tell you that.”

Before things reach the investigatory level, Craigslist’s first line of defense is its flagging system, which enables users to tag particular posts according to specific types of infractions. “Normally flagging is automated,” said Newmark. “If the posting gets enough flags, it’s removed automatically.” To prevent people from gaming the system, the site regularly alters the number of flags it takes to knock off a post.

“People are pretty unlikely to hang out there just to clean up the database,” said cyberlaw and intellectual property law professor Eric Goldman, who served as general counsel of Epinions.com from 2000-2002. The review site has also borne the brunt of abuse and system gaming, said Goldman, adding, “Every Web site that allows users to post content runs the risk of being corrupted by the scamsters, the gamesters, the fraudsters.”

Whether Craigslist, which started in 1995 as a non-commercial environment, can persist amidst an onslaught of marketer-driven posts depends on how easy it is to block offending posts, and how much money marketers can make by being there, said Jupiter’s Riley. She argues the flagging system can work. “The collective intelligence of people online is pretty good,” she said. “It only takes one person to really care.”

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