Beware of fancy infographics–spammers may be lurking behind them

Infographics are the latest trick for suckering you into signing up for spammy Web sites. Here's a story about one of them.

pie_alley.jpgflickr/Chris Campbell
Would you trust a pie chart you found hiding in a dark alley?

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but 2012 seems to have been the Year of the Infographic. Everyone and their dog is producing impressively designed fact-filled charts and giving them away to bloggers. I’ve published a few myself at TY4NS.

And, of course, there are dozens of infographics about dogs.

[12 scams of Christmas and how to avoid them and How to make sure important emails never get sent to spam]

Why do organizations spend the time and money on these things only to give them away? So they can get backlinks to their sites, raising their SEO profile and giving them lots of Google juice. Sometimes, though, the motives are a little more nefarious.

One of the biggest producers of infographics – and one of the skeeviest, in my opinion – is OnlineSchools.org. At the site's “Visual Academy” you’ll find infographics on topics ranging from brains to breasts to boogers, as well as other a variety of other alphabetically organized subjects (guns, grenades, gambling; Star Trek, strippers, suicide; etc).

A couple years back I published a particularly elaborate infographic from OnlineSchools on my sometimes-NSFW sarcasm site. It was about how people spend their time on the Internet, but I used it as a springboard to create my own more juvenile take on the topic.

Recently I got a series of emails from one Eric Bergstrom of OnlineSchools, asking me to please change the anchor text of my now two-year-old post. Each request contained the following vaguely ominous, grammatically questionable phrase:

We have recently received warning from Google that they are suspicious of link trading schemes surrounding this, and we want to make sure that you are taking the necessary precautionary measures so that your site is not adversely affected.

How, I wondered, could running a link to an infographic adversely affect my site, some two years down the road? Why would Google think I’d traded something for that link? Who was OnlineSchools, exactly, and what the heck did they want from me?

A further series of email exchanges with Bergstrom did not get me any closer to an answer to those questions. And the more I looked into OnlineSchools.org, the skeevier it began to appear.

To be clear, the site is professionally designed and has some depth. It’s chock full of generic information about online schools. It has 100 of these elaborate infographics, which could not have been cheap to produce. It has video interviews with recent graduates of online schools. It has a “library” with more than 150 brief educational tomes. It has freakin’ Lou Ferrigno, for godsakes.

Someone with money is clearly behind this business. But who, exactly? There’s no contact information, no executive profiles or board of advisors, and no physical address, just an extremely vague “About Us” page and an anonymous Web contact form (which, by the way, didn’t work). The domain owner’s name is masked. The site’s privacy policy is a joke.

The worst part, though, is the site’s reason for existence: lead generation. It exists solely to capture information about people who are in the market for online college degrees, and to sell that information to as many parties as possible.

onlineschools spammy homepage cropped.png

Using the Find A School Web app on the home page, I signed up to see what would happen. I told OnlineSchools I was looking to get a bachelor’s degree in information technology. I gave it all the data it asked for, which was a lot -- my name, age, email address, street address, phone number, highest level of education completed, and when I wanted to start school.

The site proceeded to run me through brief applications for more than 15 schools, some well known and others totally obscure. Some of these schools didn’t even offer a degree in my chosen field but, no matter, the site showed me them anyway. As soon as I clicked through one brief application, the next one would automatically load on my screen. After the 16th application I gave up. Who knows how long this process would have gone on if I hadn't.

Literally two minutes after I finished the last application, my phone rang. It was Southern New Hampshire University, calling to see if I had any questions about my application. I told her what I was doing and asked to be taken off her call list. Four minutes after that, the Florida Institute of Technology called me. While I was chatting with them, the University of Phoenix called. They proceeded to call me three times a day, every day, for the next week. They would probably still be calling me if I hadn’t told them to knock it off.

I also received other calls, as well as a dozen emails. Mind you, the site is upfront about the fact you’re agreeing to receive email and phone calls. Still, the tsunami of attention was staggering. Somebody really wanted me to sign up for online classes.

The worst part, though, is the fact these anonymous clowns have my contact info and no privacy policy to speak of. Lord only knows who else is going to be spamming me or what my information will be used for. (Fortunately, I used a fake name, spare email address and a Google Voice number that lets me prescreen my calls.)

I was beginning to understand why Google was looking askance at OnlineSchools.org. I did some Googling and discovered several other sites that had received identical oddly worded emails from the site. Most of those sites appear to have been offered “guest posts” by writers working for OnlineSchools.org, a common way to artificially boost SEO (for the record, I’ve never taken anyone up on one of those offers).

Before I knew it, I had been sucked into the murky and the morally dubious world of for-profit online universities, as well as the spammy telemarketers who feed them a steady diet of students.

Who’s behind OnlineSchools.org and what is the deal with online universities? More on that in part two of this series, which will appear later this week.

See also:

Part II: How much money are you really worth to that lead gen site? More than you think.

Part III: Online degrees with the greatest of sleaze

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Now read this:

Facebook's 'man in the middle' attack on our data

Why Facebook is full of it

Q&A: Privacy Pioneer Ray Everett

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies