Would The Real ‘Alec Couros’ Please Stand Up?

Last September, I wrote a post about how scammers had been using my photos to lure women into online, romantic relationships for the purpose of ‘borrowing’ or extorting money. Since that time, the scams have continued. I get, on average, one new report a day from women (and occasionally men) who have been tricked, or nearly tricked, into sending money. In many cases, individuals have reported forming deep attachments or even falling in love with these scammers. This has been a frustrating predicament that has been going on for many years now. In this post, I thought I would share a few of the things that I’ve learned about the scams, the scammers, and their potential victims. Here we go.

  1. These scams are likely not perpetrated by a single individual. In fact, they are most likely perpetrated by groups of individuals, or even gangs, most likely situated in Nigeria or Ghana. These are typically known as “romance scams“, and I feel strongly that recognizing and understanding these types of scams are essential skills for digitally literate individuals.
  2. These scams take place over a number of popular social networking and communication tools. While I’ve taken down nearly 50 fake Facebook profiles, I’ve also had my photos appear in profiles set up on dating sites such as eHarmony, Christian Mingle, Match.com, and Plenty Of Fish. There are also dozens of Skype accounts that have been created using my photos. The ones that concern me the most are those that actually use my name and photos. For instance, if you search ‘alec couros’ on Skype, you will get five accounts under my name. Only one of them is mine (‘aleccouros’ is legit, btw), and three have photos of me. It worries me that my friends or professional contacts may connect to one of the fraudulent accounts.
    Searching 'alec couros' on Skype gets these results

    Searching ‘alec couros’ on Skype gets these results

     

  3. Continue reading

Shared Human Moments

Take a few minutes to watch this video.

Powerful. Here’s the backstory.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Twitter is not simply about sharing information – it’s much more about sharing our collective human experiences. When we read tweets, we read lives – or at least the parts that someone chooses to share. Don’t take that for granted.

Getting Around International Content Restrictions

I was asked by Rachael Bath about how I get around international content restrictions (i.e., location-based content blocking). There are two tools that I typically use. First, I pay about $70/year for a full-featured VPN service called Witopia that allows me to get around content restrictions, as well as providing me with other privacy and security features. Second, for basic location spoofing, I use a great little Chrome extension called Hola. It’s free, works really well, and will do the trick for those looking to access services like Pandora, Hulu, Spotify, etc. where they are not available, or to get better or alternate programming from sites like Netflix (you can access Netflix UK, or US, for instance).

I’ve put together a short video to show you how it works. Hopefully this is helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Alfie Kohn Speaks Against Standardized Testing

My colleague Dr. Marc Spooner recently recorded a video call with renowned American author and lecturer, Alfie Kohn. In this video, Kohn speaks specifically against Saskatchewan’s proposed move to standardized testing. However, even if you are not from Saskatchewan, the information presented is relevant to anyone or any jurisdiction looking at moving toward or from standardized testing initiatives. Please watch the video, and pass it on. It will be a huge mistake for Saskatchewan to continue on this path, and our Government must begin to see the folly of such an ill-advised, costly, and damaging initiative.

Identity, Love, and Catfishing

Social Media’s Growing Impact on Relationships - Infographic

I recently received the following message via email. I’ve omitted a small portion of the text to protect the privacy of the sender and have only corrected a few spelling errors to improve the overall readability of the passage.

I know you do not know me, but I had to share something with you.  My name is [omitted]. I have been divorced for two and a half years. My focus has been on God and my three children. I finally decided to start dating again and some friends set me up on Christian Mingle, something that I would never do.

So to make a long story short, there I met you. You sent me an email telling me you were an engineer that travels all the time. You had two kids and your wife died giving birth to the last. The relationship we shared was long distance because we lived in different states so we talked on the phone, sent emails including pictures and also texting. We were so involved until we fell in love and l started loving your children as well.

And, we also discussed marriage. You were supposed to come visit me for the first time in October. I was so excited. We have been dating for 6 months. Of course I questioned your ID at first so I Googled you. You told me your name is Jeffrey Bartel on vk.com. There you were and I did not question a christian site.  All up until this day I have loved you with all my heart.

Today was the worst day of my life when my 17 yr old son comes to me and shows me a picture of you on Youtube as Alec. I died in that moment. I now realized that the person that I have been in love with has your face but is another person. The last time I felt such pain, my mother died of cancer.  Well, that is my story and I just wanted you to know that.

This is so hard for me. I actually have a picture of you in a frame in my office at work and at home on my night stand. I will be removing it tonight.

This is so incredibly sad and hearbreaking. This is a very honest account of a woman who has been victimized by individuals employing a “catfishing” scheme, a type of romance scam. Catfishing is when individuals or groups create false digital identities to lure victims into online, romantic relationships. While similar fraudulent activities have existed since the dawn of the Internet, social networking sites and dating services have simplified and scaled the mechanisms used by scammers. The term “catfish” comes from the 2010 film by the same name. In such cases, the romantic relationship is formed and maintained for the purpose of eventually defrauding the victim out of money or goods.

And, this isn’t the first time that someone has come forward to me about my photos being used in this way to deceive others. There have been at least a dozen incidents like this reported to me in the last five years. And, this Romance Scam thread reports a number of other incidents that were not forwarded to me directly. I presume that there are dozens of others that have occurred or are happening right now.

Shared below is the text from an email message that I received from a woman from Hungary this past June. Again, certain portions have been omitted to protect the privacy of the sender. This passage is more difficult to understand due to language differences, but I’ve left most of the message intact in order to fully communicate the writer’s intended message and sentiment.

Forgive my disturbing You with my letter – we don’t know each other. My name is [omitted], I live in Hungary.

Knowing your writings, videos and pictures I think you are, a valuable, balanced and shining happy man. And you can all these things pass other people,too – so they can it use for themselves in their life for their happiness. Your work make me follow you and, reach more successes in my life and working, too. And I have to make better my English – it isn’t perfect…

My last years wasn’t too happy and I feel I have to tell you:  live people who don’t know that they never will be happy while, they hurt their fellow. I think you met such a man…I write about this thing because, it is in connected through you. Lives a man/ or any number  live people who uses  /user name/ your happenings of your life and your pictures in order to deceiving, lying, etc… They mixed, your stations of you life and changed and rewrote your autobiography as they so want get happiness for themselves. Maybe, some women who desire or loved would give love, and who aren’t careful – become their deluded. I was one of this kind of woman…

I already forgave them but I would like to save others from bad feelings, and they suffer damage – so I send you a link. I don’t know that, you have already seen, but I want to know you information. People who work with the internet and live in public – endanger all the time their honesty.

http://www.romancescam.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=46277.

They emerged on the Facebook, too and they introduced as Evans Thompson – and promised me a happy connection..

I noticed in time that he was an impostor – but I didn’t hear about, you till now, the You life, I have not heard.
http://www.scamwarners.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=13&p=134639.

I reported him – pressed charges -, and his profile have been deleted from that place. If you have enough time – it is worth to inquire with the supplying of the Google – picture’s searching – so you can see using your pictures and fame renown.  I am happy to find, the real you people. I’m sorry, that my pain is real. But I, be further wish you,  a happy family, 3 dear kids, father you are. I believe that my failures weren’t in vain.

I think they, were necessaries for me to my developing and collecting knowledge is. I more special branch of science – for example by your teaching – I started learning..

Thanks for it you live, and you to listened, and I am glad, so. Our life is incalculable! – I think it is an exciting playing all the time! – Bye.

This case was very similar to the one I initially shared. Scammers used photos of me to create a false identity, and then lured and victimized this woman. What I found particularly interesting in this case was that the victim used the reverse Google Image search to verify the source of the images that were shared. Several others who came forward mentioned that they used this same tool, or the similar reverse image search tool Tin Eye, to identify the source of suspect images. The use of reverse image search in this way is fascinating as it is most typically employed as a copyright-related search tool. I believe that using this tool in this way, to assist in the authentication of someone’s online identity, is a valuable process that should be shared widely, include with school-aged children.

A message from another woman is found below. In this case, the message was originally written in Spanish. Thus, I initially thought that this might simply be inbox spam (I don’t get many Spanish email messages). But, I decided to run the message through Google Translate. Reading the very first sentence confirmed that this was the right thing to do.

Mr. Couros, maybe you do not speak Spanish, but you can use google translator to read this message. I found your information because there is a group of con artists elsewhere in the world, who swindles women like me with similar profile all, in my case appertain  pictures of him with his children, maybe you are already aware of this situation this but I want you to know still using her photos to scam people.

If you are interested in more information, you can ask whatever you want about what happened with me.

Of course, I was very interested to find out more about her situation, so I followed up for more information. This was her response:

Good Night Mr. Couros

Unfortunately if I was a victim of these people. Thank God I discovered things on time and I have nothing to regret I received an email on Facebook telling me a story and I was gradually entangled with romantic words and lies. They sent me pictures of you, but I eventually discovered that the only thing sought is money. I sent money on what seemed as absurd story. It was very painful, everything seemed so beautiful but the disappointment was very unpleasant.

Excuse me for saying so, but now I see your photos bring me so many different feelings for the person you loved is its image. Take care much, I imagine that there are several people that were victims.

While in this case, it seems that money was sent to the perpetrators, it does not appear that this was of most concern to the individual. In fact, in the majority of these cases it wasn’t the theft that seemed of greatest significance. Rather, the betrayal in most cases led to deep emotional hurt, often resulting in heartbreak. This is incredible to consider, but not surprising, as we’re seeing a great increase in the number of married couples who first met online. The Internet is a powerful place where humans can forge strong relationships. Unfortunately, it is apparent from these incidents that it can also be done under very deceitful and fraudulent circumstances.

So this is something that will certainly be on-going. I don’t imagine this sort of thing going away tomorrow. So, I wanted to share a few things that I feel I have learned from this experience. And, I hope that you can share your thoughts as well so that we can learn from this together. Here are a few of my initial ideas.

  1. Having a well-defined online identity is both the cause and cure of such scenarios. If I didn’t have anything online, this might not have happened. But, I know of very few people today who have are digitally non-existent. If someone can string a few stories together with the photos you have online, this could potentially happen to you. And, it was because of my strong digital identity that people were able to search, interpret the “real” me, and contact me with an increased level of confidence.
  2. Digital literacy is necessary for determining the validity of sources, including the integrity and authenticity of our relationships. I remember the great wisdom of Homer J. Simpson when he stated, “It takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.” We should remember that the continuum of constructing our identities begins with authenticity and ends with complete fabrication. As both identity constructors (our own) and identity interpreters (of others), we must consider these dynamics.
  3. Internet scams, especially romance scams, are more prevalent than we think. I know that many of us joke when yet another deposed political rebel wants to bestow us with millions of dollars in relations to the popular Nigerian/419 scams or what are otherwise known as advance fee frauds. The RCMP report that, “Advance fee loans operating for a criminal purpose generate millions of dollars annually in Canada.” And, I know from the recent experience of trying to sell my mother’s car on Kijiji that one can be bombarded with scams that may seem to good to be true for some, but perfectly reasonable to others who are less savvy.
  4. We need better ways of authenticating and protecting our identities. For instance, there is someone on Facebook who is using my name and a slide from one of my presentations. People who have ‘friended’ this individual have messaged me (they searched for the “real” me) after this person has solicited money from them. Yet, even with this evidence, I can’t get the page taken down. Facebook reviews the reports I submit and they always come back rejected. The existing processes are clearly flawed at Facebook and I assume this is similar of many other services.
  5. There are many unscrupulous people out there willing to sacrifice your feelings for money. This is nothing new. But we can’t forget that there are amazing stories of selfless individuals all around us. We must not fear. Or hide. And we need to keep sharing all sides of our human experiences.
  6. This needs to be a topic in school as part of a required digital citizenship curriculum.
  7. People fall in love online. Those feelings of love may feel no different than what you and I feel for those we love. And when deception is involved, lost love hurts equally as bad.

So, what are your thoughts, experiences, and insights? I want us all to learn from this.

Interviews in South Australia

In August 2013, I spent some time with the Department for Education and Child Development in South Australia. While I was there, I was interviewed about a number of issues related to technology and social media in Education. One of the resulting videos is found below (“Using Twitter Effectively in Education”), and there are 12 others found in this playlist.

And, for other interviews from the Department by other groups and individuals, check out their Youtube channel.

EC&I 831 Is Back! Call for Non-Credit Participants & Network Mentors

EC&I 831 - Banner

My popular open-boundary course, EC&I 831 (Social Media & Open Education), is back for the Fall of 2013 and we’d love you to participate as a non-credit student, or possibly, a network mentor. If you’re interested, please use this form to sign up!

Here’s a brief description of the course from the about page:

EC&I 831: Social Media & Open Education is an open access graduate course from the Faculty of Education, University of Regina. This course is available to both for-credit and non-credit participants. It features openly available, weekly, interactive presentations with notable educators & theorists. More importantly, the course encourages and nurtures rich interaction through a number of open spaces such as our Twitter hashtag (#eci831), our Google Plus Community, and our student blog hub. The open nature of the course. and the sharing that it inspires, benefits current and former participants, especially as the goal of the course is to foster and develop long-term, authentic, human connections.

Non-credit participation officially begins on September 24, 2013 and the course ends on December 3, 2013. There are many ways to participate, and the commitment is up to you. But, collectively I know that we will make this experience amazing for everyone involved, so it would be great if you could join us.

If you sign up, more details will be sent to you via email as we approach the 24th.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me at couros@gmail.com.

Thanks for considering. I hope that we can continue to learn together, but in a different way.

A Copyright Tale

My friend @robwall sent me this tweet a couple of days ago:

The image that (currently) previews in that tweet isn’t the original photo that was posted to this Ars Technica article. Originally, the article featured an image of my three children engaging in a Facetime conversation with my dad. I released this image under a Creative Commons license (BY-NC-SA), one that requires attribution, non-commercial use, and that the license remains the same even if someone adapts the photograph. Below is a screenshot of the original photo placement in the article, and you should notice that attribution is not provided. This seemed particularly ironic as the content of the article deals with intellectual property, and the author writes prolifically on these topics.

Report__After_patent_loss__Apple_tweaks_FaceTime—and_logs_500_000_complaints___Ars_Technica_and_WiTopia

Shortly after I received the tweet from Rob, I sent the author a tweet and posted a comment on the article. Essentially, I was fine with Ars Technica using the photograph, was happy to provide permission for non-commercial use, but urged Ars to provide proper attribution for the image. While it took several hours for a response (which I think is quite reasonable), I eventually received this tweet from the author, @joemullin.

I was pleased with the response. I don’t see this as theft. I recognize that this could easily have been an oversight. And apologizing publicly is not easy for many. So, I respect Joe for that and appreciate the transparency in his response.

Shortly after this tweet for Joe, I also received an email from the editor. I have pasted the text of this email below, and respond to it here.

Hi, I’m the creative director for Ars. First off, let me apologize for the oversight on your image credit. Our policy is always to credit and link all CC licensed photos, a quick glance at some other stories on our site should show the credit below the image. This was simply a mistake, didn’t mean for you to feel ripped off or cheated in any way.

Thanks Aurich. I’m happy with your swift response. Personally, I do not feel ripped off or cheated as I don’t feel a strong sense of ownership for the content that I create. However, the lack of attribution cheats your readership (the general public). While it may not seem like a big deal in the case of this single photograph, I feel that proper attribution is essential in providing others with the origin, adaptions, and travels of an artefact or idea. I love seeing that my work is useful for others. But, without attribution, we silence potential conversations around the matter and the context of ideas/artefacts being shared.

Let me also apologize for using an image that must resonate with you emotionally right now, definitely not our intention. I prefer that our writers not use photos of people from Flickr, even when licensed clearly for use, they’re not professional models and it can sometimes come out badly. Better to stick with licensed stock art for that kind of thing when possible.

If you missed it here’s the public apology from the author:


I appreciate that Joe has made this statement publicly.

 

Our policy is to just immediately pull any image if someone claims the rights to it and objects. We don’t even verify they own it, better safe than sorry. So in this case your photo was immediately pulled once your comment was seen.

 

The response was as timely as could be expected on a Saturday.

 

I also want to address the non-commercial license issue, it’s a bit of a mess as far as sorting out what it means. My understanding from lawyers (I’m certainly not one) is that CC licenses under “non commercial” are fair use for editorial purposes, even if the site in question also operates as a for-profit entity (so banner ads etc). Understandably some people might be 100% fine with that, and others might object because it doesn’t meet the spirit of what they thought they were putting up under that license.
So Joe wasn’t ignoring your license, he was just doing what he was told is fair game.

 

The NC licensing is clearly tricky. I’ve written about it here. The comments on the post also demonstrate how confusing NC licenses may be.

 

I really mention this though to say that it’s a pretty common industry practice, and if that bothers you then you might want to reconsider what CC license you use for some of your photos. I would hope that everyone would pull a photo down immediately if requested, but you still have to find out they’re using it first.

 

I continue to license all of my content, personal and professional, under Creative Commons licenses. My professional work typically falls under BY/SA licenses. However, I add the NC clause to my personal photos. In doing this, I find that people are more likely then to a) use my works under clearly non-commercial circumstances, b) avoid these works because of the uncertainty, or c) ask permission (as in the case of Nokia in the post I shared). This seems to provide me with a bit more control of the work in my personal domain.

 

If I can help with anything else please let me know, I wanted to reach out to you directly once I was made aware of the issue. We’re grateful for people who share their photos for use, we don’t have a photography staff or art department, and we’d be poorer off without that generosity. Any time there’s any kind of issue with the system I want to make sure all parties feel like we take their concerns seriously.
Thanks for your time, and sorry for the mixup.

 

I am very appreciative of your thorough and thoughtful response. I do believe it was just an oversight as it seemed unusual for an Ars article. I know that several educators have voiced their interest in using this story to discuss copyright and public/Internet discourse  in their own classrooms. So, I am actually quite glad this happened. Thanks.

 

Technologically-Mediated Human Relationships

A couple of nights ago, I was watching Youtube videos with my 3yr old when she noticed a thumbnail of a video featuring my dad. She instantly yelled, “Pappou, Pappou, I want to see Pappou.” We began to watch the video and within seconds, she began to call directly to her grandfather. It began slowly with “Pappou. Pappou.” But quickly, she became noticeably agitated that dad seemed to be speaking over her and not responding to her voice. She became frantic and began to yell, “Pappou! Pappou! Listen to me Pappou!” Then, she began to cry. For the next 45 minutes, she cried hysterically for her grandfather.

photo.JPG

At some point during this, I realized that she had never before simply “watched” a video of her grandfather. Before this, every time that she had seen my dad on screen, it has been through a two-way, interactive medium such as FaceTime or Skype. For kids growing up today, the boundaries between physical and virtual may not be as well-defined.

As I consoled her through this very long moment, the professor in me contemplated how incredibly different it will be for my children to grow up in today’s technology-saturated world, and more in particular, I wondered what this mediated reality will mean for their current and  future human relationships. As parents, educators, administrators, and theorists, we really need to pay attention.