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In a recent email exchange, a colleague raised questions about what may be a growing problem within LinkedIn, the online business networking platform: fraudulent profiles. He showed how a specific user had crafted a phony LinkedIn profile, then used it to establish connections with hundreds of legitimate LinkedIn users.
My colleague backed up his claim with several observations:
"It is highly likely that the entire profile is fake.
A Google search results in zero hits for his name. The list of elite employers (Goldman, McKinsey, BCG, Booz, etc.) in his LinkedIn profile is not only preposterous, there's no record he ever worked at the firm where I worked. Yesterday he listed 15 months as an "analyst," which does not exist as a role/title at that company. Today he shows 3 months as an intern there. Never mind the myriad typos in the names of companies he allegedly worked for."
Why is this a problem? Because many LinkedIn members (mistakenly) believe that a bigger network is always better, and are eager to add names to their Connections list. If someone says he was an intern at a firm where you once worked, then shouldn't you connect with him?
Yes. But only if the credentials are real.
The Value Play by LinkedIn
Like Facebook, LinkedIn is aggregating a massive amount of information about its members' networks, interests, and behavior. This has tremendous value for advertisers and potential buyers or investors. So the long-term effect of passively encouraging fraudulent behavior includes erosion of the network's value. A phony user can lift the email address from the profile of any first-degree connection. The "good" citizens of LinkedIn will have their networks usurped for fraud, or at least for spamming purposes, harming the enterprise as a whole.
As a company with ambitions to go public or be bought, LinkedIn must ensure the greatest possible value for its members' profiles, their connections, and their network behavior. It is not in LinkedIn's interest to hunt down people with phony high-end credentials – quite the opposite. A network with these credentials in it is more valuable to them – so long as the credentials may be real. Besides, hunting down phonies is a high-overhead activity for the site's managers.
In fact, it's probably better to let network members themselves report others whose credentials they suspect, or whom they believe to be violating the Terms of Service. But that reveals another problem.
How to Report Fraudulent Profiles
LinkedIn makes it very difficult to report fraudulent behavior. Scroll to the very bottom of a LinkedIn profile page and click "Customer Service," and you can search for help on a topic. Type in "Abuse" to obtain search results that require you to click again, until you can finally learn that LinkedIn "takes these matters very seriously." Then you have the opportunity to click once more, so you may fill out a generic form for asking a question. Image below shows LinkedIn's abuse reporting mechanism.
What to Do? Network Strategically
A social network's integrity is as strong as the weakest link it contains. When a LinkedIn user connects to someone he doesn't know personally and whose work he cannot vouch for, the entire network is weakened and potentially at risk. Community policing of the network requires everyone to adhere to relatively conservative rules about connecting.
This is strategic networking: seeking and establishing connections that you can trust, with people whose own networks may be valuable to you.
Notably, there is an entire movement with an opposing philosophy, so-called "open-networking" (identifiable in some cases by the acronym LION in a profile: "LinkedIn Open Networker." This approach may be useful in some cases to sales people and some job seekers, but I never knowingly connect to open networkers).
So, with these issues in mind, what can one do? Here are two simple alternatives:
- Choose not to use LinkedIn
This is actually reasonable for the vast majority of business people. But increasingly (for better or worse), people believe that having a LinkedIn profile is the mark of a "serious professional," so there is a possible adverse side-effect from refusing to participate in the site.
- Connect only with individuals whose work you can vouch for directly
This conservative approach supports the highest long-term value for your social capital. If you want your network to be reliable, fill it with people you trust.
This isn't network science, it's common sense.
What do you think about this issue? A non-problem? A minor inconvenience? A threat to online trust? Or something else? Leave a comment, and if you're a fan of open networking, tell us why.
Note: This blog posting probably violates LinkedIn Terms of Service item 10.B.10, because I deep-linked to a page other than LinkedIn's home page. I'll take the links out if they ask me to, but I'm doing it to educate LinkedIn users so the company's product is more likely to be used in the way it was intended to be used.