Hundreds of small businesses have been victims of sophisticated blackmail scams by ‘rogue editors’ on Wikipedia, as discovered by a national newspaper.
Hundreds of pounds to ‘protect’ pages
The Independent investigation revealed that small businesses from Dorset to Shoreditch, London have been told to pay hundreds of pounds to ‘protect’ or update their businesses’ Wikipedia pages.
The paper also revealed that a former contestant on Britain’s Got Talent was one of the victims who complied with the demands.
Wikipedia told the newspaper that in some instances the money requests amounted to blackmail. The online encyclopedia has reacted to what it described as a ‘co-ordinated group’ of fraudsters by blocking 381 accounts”.
The investigation, called ‘Orangemoody’, revealed that those accounts were ran by Wikipedia-registered users who offered to change entries about companies in exchange for money. The first account that aroused suspicion was identified earlier this year. The general suspicion is that many of these accounts were actually controlled by one person.
The identity of the fraudsters is still unknown.
How the fraud worked
The first victims of fraud were businesses that were having difficulty uploading articles about their companies. They were frequently told that the reason for why their articles were not going up or being taken down was because they were deemed to be too ‘promotional’ – even though it is likely that it were the scammers themselves who were taking down the articles.
A Wikipedia insider says that it was at this point that the scammers would ask for money, sometimes as high as several hundreds of pounds, in order to “re-post or re-surface” the article. In some instances they even asked for on-going monthly payments to maintain the article’s publication.
The scam has revealed a flaw in the Wikipedia model. By having a system where entries and modifications are made by volunteers Wikipedia has left itself open to abuse.
‘I suspect I am not alone’
One of the companies targeted was the Hertfordshire-based Quality Villas. The company’s general manager, Dan Thompson, told The Independent that after the article was rejected “because of lack of notability and the content up there did not meet Wiki requirements”, an editor reached out to Mr. Thompson and said he would rework the article to Wikipedia’s standards. After the article was successfully uploaded, the editor presented Mr. Thompson with a charge of £260. After he paid it, the article disappeared again.
“Maybe I was naïve, but I suspect I am not alone,” Thompson told The Independent.