Phishing for Books

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

You’ve probably heard of people who have been fooled into giving sensitive information (such as social security and credit card numbers); email is a common way to do this and setting up a bogus website is another. In both cases, the fraudulent scheme is called phishing (pronounced fishing). Spammers will use just about anything to fool somebody into handing over their personal information, and that can include, unfortunately, using your book.  

If you come across one of these pages, you might be completely shocked. It looks like someone has stolen your book, after all! And while this is uncommon for most authors, here's what to do if you see your book somewhere other than where it's supposed to be.

How Does Book Phishing Work?

The way this works is surprisingly simple; a spammer will buy a website and make it look like a legitimate online bookstore. They spoof people by saying they can give the books away for free. Usually, these websites will use APIs that generate scrapes (or copies) of book listings from real online booksellers. That means they pull out the book cover art, book title, book description, and sometimes even book reviews.

Because search engines are crawling for this kind of information, they pick up on it. This means if someone were to search for your book, they could come across this fake listing as a result to their search. While it likely won’t be on one of the first several search result pages, it would show up further down the line. It would show up higher if the user added “free” to the search. Your author website and legitimate sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, would pop up as search results before this fake website due to site authority because several other websites have proven their legitimacy by linking to them from their own websites. Understanding the importance of search engine optimization is one way to make sure your author website is ranking higher than any scammers.

If a users see and click the fake listing, the fake website may tell them they have the option to receive an electronic copy of your book for free. Don’t be fooled! There’s no book. What happens next is the website will tell the user that it's free because of some sort of opt-in offerusually a magazine trial or some kind of subscription service. And what does a reader need in order to opt into this promo to get the free book? A credit card.

What Can You Do?

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is you can take steps to stop it when you find it. The bad news is for every fake website that’s stopped several more can pop up. You can perform what’s called a “whois” website search (there are several free websites that will do this; you can find them if you Google "whois website lookup"); all you have to do is paste the website address and the whois search will tell you who controls the websitesometimes this information is private, but every website, private or not, has to supply an "abuse email address." You can contact the abuse email address and explain the situation.

Is It Always Spam?

While phishing is the most common way you’ll see your book online, it’s not the only way. Piracy does happen to bestselling authors and smaller indie authors alike.

If you are concerned about someone stealing your book in its entirety, there are two ways to protect yourself. One is to look into a watermarking service, which puts an electronic watermark in your book and tracks whenever it shows up on a website that’s not authorized. Another way is to upload your book to a website that can scan the contents and then crawl the Internet to see if the content is found elsewhere online.

While phishing and piracy are not common, it’s important to understand how it works and what you can do about it.


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Scott La Counte

Scott La Counte is the CEO of BuzzTrace, which helps authors and publishers discover new readers and sell more books. He has over 15 years experience in publishing as both an author and publisher. Writing under the name Scott Douglas, he has had several bestselling books.