All kinds of online marketplaces are creaking under scams

18.16, Tuesday 22 Jun 2021

I put out a shout for a graphic designer on Twitter a couple of days ago. I was bombarded by direct messages from accounts that presented as people, and talked like people, and tweeted like people… but their portfolios were stuffed with generic logos clearly pumped out by software. Opportunist individuals, side-hustling their way to projects they then outsource? Or paint-by-numbers design farms that use fake “young designer” bots as a sales channel?

Then there are the Instagram ads for well-photographed products with well-put-together brands – that I then find on Alibaba being sold directly out of multiple factories. Ditto when you search on Amazon for digital scales for baking, or wristbands for running with key pockets, or STEM toys (to pick three recent examples) and the results are swamped with semi-identical products from a dozen different brands.

Except for the disingenuous authenticity, it’s unfair to call these scams. The system is functioning as intended. The system was design as a marketplace, and indeed buyers are being connected to sellers… only there are invisible intermediaries who are excellent at targeting the channel but contribute zero added value.

Though there are also actual scams to be found elsewhere:

  • Apps on the Apple App Store that pay for promotion, and fool users into extortionate subscriptions. (It only needs to work for a small percentage to be profitable.)
  • Facebook ads for products that take your money and never ship. (I’m pretty savvy and do my due diligence, but even I’ve been fooled once or twice.)

IN THE MIDST OF THIS there are legit new companies starting, and legit new people to work with. But it’s getting increasingly hard to find them (and once found, trust them) through the noise of the scams.

What spam is to communication, scams are to marketplaces.

Only there’s no way I can install an anti-scam filter.

My hunch is that after 20+ years of scaling marketplaces of all kinds, reducing friction and increasing activity, we’re hitting a wall similar to the malware wall hit by Windows (and ultimately “solved” by the shift to managed computing led by iOS), the spam wall hit by email (Gmail’s spam filter was a band-aid; ultimately comms moved off email into WhatsApp and corporate messaging), and the disinfo wall hit by large social network (not yet solved, but we can see attempted solutions in form of private Discords and the rise of the other cosy online spaces). Like these, the fix isn’t just more of the same.

So assume this problem is getting worse. What is to be done?

Two solutions from history no longer work in 2021:

  • Brands. A brand is a hostage – you know the company won’t do anything awful because they risk a brand which has taken time, money, and good behaviour to develop. Call it reputation. But we consumers can’t tell reputation directly, we can only look for signifiers: have we encountered the brand a lot; do other people appear to transact with it; does it look expensive; etc. And online, all of those signifiers are cheap to fake. A new scam brand can be indistinguishable from a established yet new-to-me trustworthy one.
  • Retailers. The other problem with brands is that you do want to buy from new ones, so one role of trusted retailers - in the past - has been to pass on that trust to the brands they select. Our brains believe that trust is a transitive property. But it isn’t: trusting Amazon doesn’t mean you can trust the merchants; trusting LinkedIn doesn’t mean you can trust the approaches you get there. Is there room for a retailer just like Amazon only it carefully vets all its merchants? Sadly I don’t believe so: a retailer is also about footfall, and such a selective retailer will never become the default shopping destination that Amazon is. Besides, we need a solution that works for Facebook ads (no Amazon) too.

I can speculate…

What if every brand had some kind of digital certificate, and anybody in my trusted networks could anonymously certify that they had had a good experience? (By networks I mean: mutuals on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; people I correspond with on email; and so on.) My initial model is HTTPS, which guarantees that your web browser has a connection with a certified endpoint, and no intermediaries have futzed with the data.

And then the certificate would be displayed as a badge wherever I see that brand in a channel, whether as a Facebook ad, in a list of Amazon results, via search, or on their own website.

Maybe instead of social signals, I could subscribe to a service that whitelists and blacklists brands, and use that as my source of trust instead. Perhaps credit card companies could also feed into it: when a purchase is made, the digital certificate transfered with the payment authorisation, and attached to any future chargeback or refund.

This would be something presented as an overlay on existing large web properties, so it probably has to be independent from them and built into the browser somehow. Instead of being yet another startup, could it be a protocol someone, something that everyone could adopt, large and small?

The key point is to decouple trust from the retailer itself (as marketplaces such as Amazon are unable to provide this), and to make the badge visible on every single discovery surface.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to extend this to freelancers and LinkedIn. To my kind it’s a similar-shaped problem. Neither is about identity (you are who you say you are) but about misrepresentation (your implied characteristics are the same as your actual characteristics).

We need big, distributed, imaginative solutions.


Here is a story about the first thing I ever bought online.

Back in the late 90s there was this new thing called e-commerce. i.e. buying stuff on the web.

So in 1997 or maybe early 1998 I decided to buy something online for the first time. I mean, typing my credit number in an online form and everything, not just selecting from an online catalogue.

But I decided that, because e-commerce would plainly dominate in the future, I would purchase something that was in some way emblematic of the whole absurdity of e-commerce, to mark the occassion.

Here’s a photo of what I bought. I still have it. (Or rather: it lives in my mum’s garden.) It’s a garden ornament.

  • It’s ugly. It’s a grotesque!
  • It’s super heavy. Exactly the wrong kind of object to send through the post.
  • It’s not real. It’s not a stone ornament, it’s made of resin and filled with sand for the weight.

So it tickled me to get this nasty simulacrum as a kind of conscious foreshadowing of the rest of my online life.

But knowing what I know now, I should be thankful that I didn’t receive just a photocopy of a picture of the thing in an envelope, or that it actually turned up at all.

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