Beware the New eBook Scam

There's a new growing menace in the world, something becoming known as ebook fraud. It comes in two forms, says security guru Bruce Schneier: books quickly created from automatically gathered content crawled from the Web, and books generated from stealing legit printed books, scanned and sold by someone that doesn't own the copyright.

The issue is that sites like Amazon and Google Books allow third-parties to sell books with only a scanty background check and no copyright verification. Amazon includes its third-party books in its search results, and gives unwary Kindle users a sense of security that a book bought for a Kindle from Amazon is for real. Scammers can load Amazon up with many fraudulent ebooks and then pile up fake great reviews to make them pop to the top of the search results.

The situation was first brought to light by Mike Essex, a Search Specialist at UK digital marketing agency Impact Media. He writes:

"It’s true most eBook platforms review the content they receive, however it will be little more than a cursory check by automated software with thousands of eBooks published every day across multiple platforms. I tested this by publishing an eBook with content taken from my own blog on Amazon, this didn’t set off a single detector or warning. You have to tick a box to confirm you have permission to use the content, but tick boxes have never stopped scammers from lying before."

Essex also points out that with third-party ebook aggregation sites like Smashwords, it takes as little as 24 hours to turn any random collection of words into multiple ebook formats. (Smashwords insists that it has good protections in place to spot fraudulent or content-farm-collected ebooks.) It's not fair to pick too much on Amazon. Google's "copyright verification" is similar, a scout's honor promise in the form of a quick checkmark box.

Meanwhile, stories of fraud are starting to surface. The Making Light blog reports on the story of a writer who posted his novel to his website. When someone suggested that he post it to Amazon as a third-party, he discovered someone else stole it from his site and already had it on Amazon.

Essex and the others covering this new scam point to new how-to videos that teach others the scam such as Autopilot Kindle Cash, which promises: "Make as much HANDS FREE, NO WORK, Passive Income as You Desire! This new system COMPLETELY removes the words work." We always wonder about that ... is the person that falls for your "make money quick" scam video really the one that can execute a scam on other people?

To be sure, Amazon does have a policy in place for those who may discover their books or Websites infringed upon. They are to file a complaint, offering a description of the infringing material, where it is located on the site and so on. Amazon doesn't promise to investigate or do anything about your complaint in its policy however. Since it does so little to validate that someone submitting an ebook has the right to do so, the weight of proof is left to the person who actually owns the copyright. In the meantime, the ebook publisher can take the book down and start publishing under a new name.

As ebook readers and tablets grow in popularity, so will the exploiters.  As Schnieier says: "Every open communications system we've ever built gets overrun by scammers and spammers. Far from making editors superfluous, systems that democratize publishing have an even greater need for editors."

The sad fact is that ebook retailers don't seem to be learning from their past mistakes, either. In 2009, Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos was forced to apologize for a saga known at the time as the Kindle Swindle. Amazon began deleting copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindles of folks who bought copies. Turned out, Amazon didn't have permission to sell them. Bezos was forced to eat crow for deleting the copies, saying that the company's response as "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted...we deserve the criticism we've received." He promised at the time it was a harsh lesson learned, but ... was it, really?