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Internet encyclopaedia website Wikipedia has uncovered a sophisticated blackmail scam targeting hundreds of small UK businesses and minor celebrities.
After weeks of investigation, volunteer editors discovered that a group of cybercriminals, operating “sock puppet” editor accounts had been forcing victims to pay hundreds of pounds in order to update and “protect” their Wikipedia pages.
The volunteers had detected an unusual pattern in behaviour whereby draft Wikipedia pages created by genuine users, that had failed to pass inspection – usually due to concerns over notability or excessively promotional content – would be sufficiently edited by the rogue editors to pass inspection.
Contact would then be made with the original creator, where the scammers - posing as professional editors, would offer to publish the redrafted article for a fee.
Once the creator paid the fraudsters, another sock puppet account would review and approve the article so that it would go live on Wikipedia.
However, the creator would be contacted shortly after and told they would need to pay a monthly fee – often around $30 (£19.64) – in order to protect the page from being deleted or vandalised.
The scammers preyed on businesses and celebrities – anxious for the publicity – across Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia.
British victims included a former Britain’s Got Talent contestant, a high-end London jewellery shop and a wedding photography business from Dorset.
Dan Thompson, who runs a holiday let company, was another Brit duped by a fraudster claiming to have Wikipedia “privileges”, he said: “Maybe I was naive but I suspect I am not alone.”
Wikipedia told The Independent that in some cases, the requests for money amounted to blackmail.
As a result 381 rogue editor accounts have been blocked and 210 Wikipedia pages relating to the affected businesses and personalities have been deleted, but Wikipedia anticipates that more action is likely to be required.
While not encouraged by Wikipedia, paid editing does exist on the site. For example, some companies and celebrities hire PR specialists to maintain their Wikipedia page, while museums and universities get their employees to keep their pages up to date. However, there are strict guidelines to adhere to.
Ed Erhart and Juliet Barbara, Members of the Wikimedia Foundation - the non-profit charitable organisation behind Wikipedia, recently blogged: “Neutrality is key to ensuring Wikipedia’s quality. Although it does not happen often, undisclosed paid advocacy editing may represent a serious conflict of interest and could compromise the quality of content on Wikipedia.”
The Foundation, said that it will be reviewing more articles, and has urged Wikipedia users to be on the lookout for similar scams. Suspicious entries can be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org.