Friday, July 26, 2013

How Google accidentally uncovered a Chinese ring of car thieves

Looking for fraud on AdWords, the team found something more mysterious

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AdWords is the core of the business of Google, delivering billions of data-targeted ads to browsers every year. Most of the ads are legitimate, but not all of them, and it’s Google’s job to tell which is which. Last year, that meant kicking 224 million ads off the network. The majority were run-of-the-mill web fraud: counterfeit handbags, thinly veiled phishing schemes, the kind of thing any decent spam filter would take out. But in 2010, in the midst of reworking the ad-filtering model, something strange happened. The new model was flagging a lot of otherwise innocuous ads for used cars. Most of the bad products were counterfeit goods, and, as AdWords engineering director David Baker says, "We'd never heard of a counterfeit car." Had they trained AdWords into anti-car prejudice? Was the model simply broken?

The answer turned out to be even stranger. They were real cars, but they weren't really for sale. Scammers were taking pictures of cars on the street, and when a hapless customer showed up a few days later offering money, they'd steal the car and hand it over. By the time the mark realized he had purchased stolen goods, the sellers were long gone, taking his money with them. It's a lucrative scam, and in China, a well-known one — but to anyone looking at the ads, it just looks like one more crop of used-car ads.

For those who study fraud in China, on the other hand, this is far from surprising. "These people are very professional," says Dahui Li, an information systems expert at the University of Minnesota who specializes in Chinese online fraud. In the case of the car scam, he says the offline component is the most important part, as a way to assure skeptical customers that the sale is legit. "Chinese people want to see the product before they pay for it," Li says. "They have to see the car." So the criminal element developed a scheme that could show it to them.   READ MORE

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