It's a little off topic, but here's a story about comment spam

November 19, 2010: 1:26 PM ET

A close look at Direct Commerce Academy, the tiny, secretive company that generates so much spam on Facebook-comment enabled websites like Fortune.com.

By Daniel Roberts, reporter

A typical spam comment on Fortune.comYou may have noticed certain spam comments repeatedly showing up on Fortune.com – they're hard to miss, appearing mere seconds after the editors here publish an article. The comments are almost identical each time:

"It's a Little off Topic but Anyone looking for a Job should check out this Website that is currently Hiring People to Work from Home for $73/hr Online: http://www.cnn-jobs.com-secure.info/work-from-home-jobs. This opening has already paid me very well and is supporting my entire family and my children's school. God Bless."

That's what "Audrey Sanders" wrote on a recent Fortune.com story, just the latest in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of near identical posts. On a separate story, a Michelle Roberts wrote the same, except that she added, "And I Can Work from Home with my Kids!" before wishing readers "God Bless."

The Facebook users making the comments have normal-seeming names and real profile pictures. But most readers probably aren't fooled. Clicking on the person's name reveals in nearly each case that the user has no friends, no interests or personal information listed, and does not respond to messages. If the accounts aren't fakes, they're built for the sole purpose of generating spam on the commenting system, which for most sections of Fortune.com and partner site CNNMoney, are currently powered by Facebook.

Fortune decided to jump down the rabbit hole and follow the trail of some of our most dedicated commenters, even if their comments are always more than a little off topic: The trail eventually ends at a company calling itself the Direct Commerce Academy.

The link to the "CNN jobs" web site (the site is not affiliated with CNN, CNNMoney or Fortune in any way) goes to a site called News 7 Daily. Hint: it's not a real news outlet. The page presents a news story about Kelly Richards, a stay-at-home mom who tells News 7 Daily she has been making over $7,000 per month by working from home online.

The site design looks like a real news site. Tabs along the top tout sections like Home, U.S., World, Entertainment, and Leisure. Under "Other Related News," there are even ads for Fortune-like lists, such as "50 best places to launch a business." Photos along the bottom of the current news story preview stories about other people who have made the same outrageous money as our friend Kelly.

But clicking the section headings or anything else on the page (except for the weather report, which is legitimate, embedded from accuweather.com) leads to one site: UndergroundCashMashine.com. (Note: We're not linking the URLs for the spam sites we're mentioning, to avoid helping them boost their search engine rankings.)

Users who get this far are faced with an image of a large laptop screen explaining the Home Income Wealth System. Sticky notes announce that you've seen this service featured on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, People, and Time (they must mean you've seen it in the spam comments). At last, users enter their names and addresses in order to "check the availability" of the start-up kit. Spoiler alert: it's available.

We entered some information and learned we could have the home income kit for only $2.97. At this point, the site finally asks for a credit card, and we went no further. But wait—$2.97 isn't the whole deal. Click "Terms and Conditions" and you get the big reveal: In five days, after the $2.97 trial period ends, you'll be charged an activation fee of $68.71 and another monthly fee of $68.71.

Also in the Terms and Conditions was an 800 number. Call and a real human being answers: "You've reached customer care." We asked what company the operator represented, and were transferred to the "corporate offices" where a woman named Debbie shirked our questions until finally saying, "um, we're called Focus. You can go online, to Focus.com or whatever."

We tried that. But Focus.com is the web site of the very real company Focus, a business expertise network that provides advice to Web entrepreneurs, and knew nothing about Underground Cash Machine or these links.

How to work from home and lose money online!

Another call to the original 800 number gave us a new person, Joe, who opened up a bit more. Joe said the company is not called Focus, but the Direct Commerce Academy. He said that they are based at a call center in San Diego, and that the whole company is in the same building there, though with different departments for incoming calls.

He was happy to explain the DCA for us, though he wouldn't provide a last name and could not be reached on subsequent calls. "What you're doing, basically, is you choose the category of links you want to advertise for, so you can do clothes, jewelry, sporting goods, whatever you're good at is what we recommend you selling," he said. "So you find companies that are doing advertising over the Internet, and you advertise for the store. And when someone clicks your link and buys the shoes, say, you make commission off of it."

What Joe's trying to say is that his company charges users a monthly fee to give them access to links that the users are then supposed to go promote online, in order to earn small amounts of money on click-throughs of those links. In other words, DCA is creating human-powered spam.

Joe happily acknowledged the hefty monthly fee, saying: "A lot of people don't make any money at first, just lose it, so they see the monthly fee as a big hit to their income. But if they do stick with it, and actually go through and post links; that charge will start to seem like nothing."

"On average our customers make an extra grand a month," he said. Joe would not provide us with contact information for anyone that has had success with the service.

Joe also said that the DCA has been around since 2003, and that his specific job is solely to deal with the people that call to cancel their accounts. DCA also has a sales department that contacts any users who entered contact information but not a credit card, in an attempt to have them complete the sign-up process.

Judging from hundreds of posts found on community message boards, the people that call DCA to cancel their accounts are not pleased with Joe's response. "Watch out… I noticed the DCA charges and had my bank block those transactions since then, they are now trying repeatedly (7x in last 2 weeks) to get the money via two other names which show up as ExcelPro and MkOnlineFrmHm," posted an anonymous user on Complaints.com on November 10. Another commenter, on November 15: "DCA are a group of criminals and need and will be stopped in their tracks. I fell for this crap."

Yet the comments continue to appear. And they're always made via Facebook accounts. Simon Axten, a Facebook spokesperson, said of the matter: "We take security very seriously and devote tremendous effort to protecting people from spam and scams. We've built automated systems that operate behind the scenes to detect and block or remove suspicious activity, including fake accounts and spam posts or messages."

Meanwhile, Facebook just announced a sophisticated new messaging system, one that strives to be the routing point for the myriad ways people communicates online these days. It seems that now might be the time for Facebook to address its complex spam problems, and not by accidentally deleting valid accounts, as it has done this week. Such an effort by the social networking company wouldn't be off topic at all.

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