Congratulations Internet. You've now become a parody of yourself; a marketing ginmill with very little that is actually useful.
This weekend is the tax-free weekend, specifically set for this time of year to coincide well with back-to-school shopping festivities. Apparently some folks make a big fun event out of this and dress silly in costumes and go to Walmart right at midnight. I'm not sure if that's an isolated thing or if it's becoming a trend like black friday. Not sure I approve, but to each their own. Years ago, I worked at Office Depot during back-to-school days and let me tell you that this is the most important time of year for an office supply store --certainly more than the holidays.
But I tend not to think of shopping as fun in most cases. In our case, we are sensible and download our school supplies list on Friday, print it out and take it to the store with us on Saturday. At least that's what we are trying to do. But it turns out there's a snag. If you go to the school district's web page, you can get all the lists you need for the elementary and middle schools. But they don't have a list for any of the high schools. Go ahead and check. At least as of this very moment, there's no high school list.
Well no big deal. Being intelligent enough to solve our own problems, we do a web search for oldest daughter's high school name and the words "school supplies" and assume that the first result will be the right one. There are several results and though the first one isn't actually on the district's web page, it does look official enough. There's a list and there are even some handy links and ads to buy them immediately online if you are so inclined.
Wait a minute. Wait just a minute...
Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this site isn't official at all. It's a generic domain like SchoolSuppliesList.com and they have a profile page for the right district and school. They even have the address and phone number along the top header. And there's a download link there in a prominent spot. It seems legit. But it's not. And this business model is a new one for me.
They've taken the freely available yellow pages business listing for the school and probably many thousands of other schools and auto-generated pages for all of them. Then they loaded them up with auto-generated fake lists of grade appropriate school supply ads dressed up in just the right way to appear to be official lists. There's also a big green DOWNLOAD button, but it either downloads spam-ware or other malware of some kind. The final giveaway for me was a small text message directed at teachers or school administrators instructing them to upload their own list. That means they don't have the actual list either. But they've set themselves up in the perfect spot to take advantage of the unaware parents who just search Google for <school name>, <grade> and
supply list and then start quickly buying stuff on the first page that comes up.
In review, here is what is likely going down...
- The school and district administration have not or will not publish a school supply list on their website in time for the right shopping weekend. That's bad, but probably not uncommon across the nation. The disconnect between the decision makers and the IT department is probably wide enough that either this isn't a priority or a deadline got missed.
- The district doesn't have a page in place for that school's list, so scummy tricksters swoop in and post an easy-to-make page which pretends (within legal parameters) to be the official page. Since nothing else fills that vacuum, these sites make it to the front page of search engine results for the right search.
- Parents and students will be searching on their favorite engine for their proper supply list for this year and will find a modern, easily accessible site at the top of the results that not only lists out what's necessary but includes the right links to buy them. So they print out the list or buy them right on the site.
- Unfortunately, not only might they be buying cheap pieces of crap, but the random list they've found has no connection whatsoever to the school or teacher or classroom their student will be in this year.
- Students will show up on the first day of school with the wrong stuff and all parties will be scratching their heads wondering why.
I got the list online,the parents will claim without remembering specifically where. The teachers will stare perplexed.
- Money has been wasted. Education has been moderately interrupted until the correct supplies can be acquired. A lousy time was had by all... except of course the scammers who pocket the affiliate earnings.
But Jim, you say plaintively,
there can't be that many people out there dumb enough to fall for this trick, right? Oh man. I wish that were true. If it was, then these sites wouldn't already exist in abundance waiting to catch the falling fruit. If a business model exists, that means it works or has a likely potential to work. Ergo, my guess is that yes, a lot of people are falling for this. If the axiom is that
there is a sucker born every minute, then if there are traps for suckers found in the wild, you know suckers can be found traveling that path.
But not me. And hopefully now that you've read this, not you either. At least do me the favor to post a comment below with your promise of vigilance. And here's hoping that either the district gets wise or the search engines do. Thanks.
— James A. Arconati (@ArcoJedi) August 3, 2013