Microsoft recently created a fake bank branch (the “Greater Offshore Bank and Trust”) in New York City, and hired “staff” to convince consumers to divulge personal information. The payoff? A promise of $500 for new accounts that consumers opened.
Consumers were asked to provide much of the standard identification information – driver’s license, name, social security number, etc. But they were also asked to provide such obscure items as their pants size, a snippet of hair for a DNA test, and other such things.
And what was the point of this? To promote Microsoft’s Internet Explorer version 8, which includes tools and capabilities to help consumers catch potential fraud on the Internet. A catchy concept, but very misleading, in my view.
The fact that consumers will walk into a realistic-looking bank branch and divulge personal information is very different from consumers divulging their information to a fraudulent web site. Granted, both can happen – but consumers are much more likely to be lulled into a sense of security by a real physical space, rather than a web site. In that physical world, they have a real person that they can describe to police, there are lease agreements for the building, and other tools to track potential criminal activity. And in this case, the consumers had the promise of a payoff for their information.
In contrast, a fraudulent site on the Internet has virtually none of those attributes to induce consumer confidence (or motivation). Consumers, once educated about the risks, would likely be much less prone to divulging such data without some confidence about who was receiving it and how it would be used. And if we can take the greed out of the equation (“We are looking for someone to help us transfer $20 million for the Queen of Transylvania”), that makes consumers less vulnerable still.
Microsoft’s advertising does make a valid point, even if they don’t emphasize it – it is harder to know who you’re dealing with in the online world. So consumers need to be cautious with their information in both the physical and online worlds, and to find out who they are sending their information to, and ensure that it’s reputable. We know from statistics that way too many people don’t do this – I just wish Microsoft spent its effort promoting this element of safety, and not just its own toolbox.