Speaking with spammers

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One of my jobs at Macworld is to help moderate our forums. And part of that job is to keep the forums as free of clutter as possible. Some of that clutter comes in the form of spam—a lot of it from Chinese companies promoting media conversion utilities.

It happens that, at the same time, some of these companies solicit us for reviews of their software. I find it a little nervy that on the one hand, they’re using sleazy marketing tricks to promote their stuff and gain Google hits by the sheer number of Web mentions generated by their spam and, on the other hand, attempting to promote their software as legitimate.

These companies work this way. A Chinese-based company creates these utilities—generally some kind of media converter or ripper. Invariably open-source software like FFmpeg lies underneath this stuff, though it’s not always credited as it’s supposed to be. That company then has several brands. The software’s interface is skinned differently for each brand, but is otherwise the same in terms of functionality. The interfaces are invariably garish and the UI clumsy. I had the opportunity to test one—iSkysoft’s $39 DVD Ripper ( ) and it wasn’t good—there were an overwhelming number of presets (many of which produced poor results) and regardless of which preset you used the resulting video wasn’t nearly as good as video ripped with free software such as HandBrake ( ).

The software is advertised through forum spam—usually in the form of tutorials that show you how to use it—but there’s sock puppeting going on as well. These companies will often first pose a question along the lines of “How do I convert my videos for the iPad?” and then, under a different identity (but using the same IP address), answer their own question with a recommendation for one of these tools. Additionally, they create shareware sites that, coincidentally enough, rave about these products in fake reviews.

Normally you don’t have the opportunity to communicate with spammers, but in this case I did. I was contacted by a PR representative from one of these companies asking for a review. I replied that we don’t review software from spammers but if they were willing to forego this sleazy practice, we might consider a review, just as we’d consider a review of any legitimate product.

This, over the course of several exchanges, forced a series of excuses. The first was that they’d stopped spamming a year ago. A search of the Internet proved that this was untrue.

Then they said that their affiliate companies spammed, but they didn’t. They’d speak to the boss of the parent company and put a stop to it immediately. It didn’t stop.

They next promised to stop spamming our forums if only we’d review their product. There was no such promise to stop spamming other forums.

And finally, figuring that a little sweetening might work, they suggested that they’d be willing to advertise with us as well as offer special deals and prizes to our readers. To gain these rich rewards all I had to do was agree to review their software

I replied to each excuse and offer with the same answer: “We don’t support spammers. If you want to be treated like a legitimate company, you’ll behave like one. Stop the spamming everywhere. Stop the fake reviews. Stop the multi-brand packaging and pricing. We don't take bribes. Only then will we have something to talk about.” As expected these suggestions fell on deaf ears. Our correspondence finally ended when we were spammed by one of the affiliate companies after I was told it would stop.

I won’t reveal the name of that particular company in this context because I think such e-mail should be confidential. However, I have no problem naming the companies that have spammed us in the last several months—and yes, this company is among them. If you have an aversion to spammers and the wares they peddle, here’s a handy list of companies to avoid:

  • 4Easysoft
  • 4Media
  • 4Videosoft
  • AirproSoft
  • Aimersoft
  • Aiseesoft
  • AppleXsoft
  • Aunsoft
  • AVAide
  • AVCWare
  • Brorsoft
  • Cucusoft
  • Daniusoft
  • Doremisoft
  • iFunia
  • iMacSoft
  • ImTOO Software Studio
  • iSkysoft
  • Joboshare
  • Mac DVD Ripper Soft
  • Pavtube
  • Topmediasoft
  • Wondershare
  • Xilisoft

And there are plenty more. And intentionally so. One of the tactics of these companies is to confuse potential customers by offering dozens of versions of the same tool under just as many dozens of brands. To add to the confusion (or deception) they’re sometimes priced differently. For example, one of these parent companies, Wondershare, has at least two affiliate brands—iSkySoft and Aimersoft. Much the same tool is selling under three different names—iSkysoft DVD Ripper, Wondershare DVD Ripper, and Aimersoft DVD Ripper. The iSkysoft and Aimersoft versions each cost $39. But the Wondershare version is priced $6 more at $45.

(Update: Representatives of Wondershare contacted us to say that while it might have spammed in the past, the company has taken a hard line against spamming in the past year and has stopped spamming itself. However, when we looked around the Macworld Forums, CNet's forums, and PCWorld's forums, we found several instances over the last year of spam promoting the Wondershare brand. Wondershare blames these events on its low-quality marketing affiliates, and it's clear that the volume of spam from Wondershare has dropped precipitously in the past year. Still, we believe companies are responsible for the behavior of their marketing partners, and despite Wondershare's official anti-spam policy, there is still some Wondershare spam being posted on forums, including our own.)

For those of you running forums of your own and plagued with this crud, here’s a hint. Look up the IP address of these spammers and you'll almost always find addresses allocated by APNIC (Asia Pacific Network Information Centre) and RIPE (Réseaux IP Européens). They don’t generate the spam or host the spammers. Because they allocate addresses to such large areas of the globe, it’s impractical to block them. However, if your forum software allows, you can block ranges of IP address from which this spam originates. For example, if you block IP address starting with 124.126 you knock out a lot of this media converter spam.

But that's our job as forum keepers. This doesn’t help normal folks who routinely stumble upon the spam in forums not kept clean or come across phony testimonials and reviews when seeking information on legitimate tools. But you can keep from rewarding these companies (and, perhaps, help convince them that marketing this way only hurts them). You can do that by taking any recommendation you find in a forum or on a questionable Website for this kind of software with a very large grain of salt. These and similar companies have saturated the Web with their loathsome advertising and it’s often difficult to discern the truth. Generally speaking, if one of these utilities is packaged in a very generic looking “box” and has a cartoonish interface (or looks like it was ported from Windows), send a message to the spammers by avoiding it like the plague.

[Updated 8/30/10 10 AM to clarify APNIC and RIPE's relationship to this issue. Updated 9/8 to detail Wondershare's response to this article.]

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