Ah, the Internet.  It’s the foundation for so many beautiful things.  Communities of mothers who learn from each other, a virtual treasure trove of recipes and craft ideas, and a phenomenal way to share updates with friends and family all across the globe.  It’s also how I met my husband, but that’s a story for another time.

The Internet is a perfectly engineered bridge, joining neighborhoods together and connecting us all through virtual ((((hugs)))).  But look closely, and you’ll see some gnarly, ugly trolls hiding beneath this bridge.  There’s a dirty underworld of the Internet, and I was reminded of this recently when a mothering forum that I belong to was infiltrated by an emotional scammer.  Our savvy moderator acted quickly after I brought this fake member to her attention, but it provided a good opportunity for discussion about how to spot a troll, and how to kill a troll.

I worked in Social Services for four years in the field of domestic adoption.  While my work was primarily with prospective birth/first mothers and prospective adoptive families, I dealt quite a bit with the Internet inquiries that our agency received.  Over time, I learned that the adoption world is rife with “emotional scammers”, and became educated in how to weed them out and how to protect my clients.  As you go for your evening walk down the streets of your Internet community, here are a few things to be aware of.  Consider this your Public Safety Announcement.

1.  What is a “troll”?

An Internet troll can fall into a few different categories.  We’re all pretty savvy about the mean trolls who show up as blog commenters, but what about the ones who lurk in online forums?  An “Emotional Scammer” is primarily out for attention.  They crave sympathy, engagement, and interaction.   A “Financial Scammer” is often more obvious.  They use dirty tricks to engage others in sharing money or resources.  While most of us know not to click on a link that sends money to a long-lost relative in Nigeria, it’s more complex when a woman posts a sob story about how she’s about to be homeless and suddenly everyone on your California Natural Mothers forum is sending her gift cards.

2.  “Wait…how do you know the difference between someone who has a legitimate need (or sad story), and an emotional scammer?”

Emotional scammers crave attention.  They defy common sense and don’t apply basic social skills to the Internet.  There are some folks on the Internet who have heartbreaking stories of true hardship.  They have kept blogs for years.  They know many other bloggers in real life.  They are active in their online communities and honest about their struggles.  Those people aren’t trolls, because they have real relationships.  It’s the random ones that nobody knows, that you need to worry about.  Alexandra at If Emily Posted gives a wonderful example of how basic social skills should still apply in online behavior.  She uses the 80/20 rule to remind us that 80% of our online interaction should be “engaging and informative” and 20% should be “me, me, me”.  I love how she says that Internet interaction should be like cocktail party behavior.  A normal person would ask questions, get to know folks, and do a little bit of personal sharing.   An emotional scammer will often walk into an online forum and start sharing copious amounts of very personal information right away.

Trolls overshare. A recent troll that we discovered posted the following topics within ONE WEEK of joining our mothering forum: a) a very detailed story about her stillborn baby, that included “I just discovered years later that a mystery person took a photo of my dead baby and they just emailed it to me.  I’m sitting here trying to decide if I should open the email.  Can you help me decide?” b)  numerous photos of her other children c) open questions about various hot-button topics (immunizations, attachment parenting) without ever asking a direct question.  Conversely, some will attempt to engage others in heated debates (for the sake of debating) without ever revealing why they personally need the information.  Trolls don’t wait to get to know you.  Trolls jump right in and steal the spotlight, pointing it directly at themselves and engaging in conversations that have no end.

Trolls rarely have an online footprint.  They go into detail about their personal lives on forums, but don’t have a history on their own Facebook page.  A recent troll said that she needed to be re-added to our group because her account was hacked, which tipped us off that she was running from other folks who had figured her out already.  Her previous profile only went back a few months, she had very few “friends”, and very little interaction on her own page.

Trolls have extraordinarily fascinating lives.  They live in Australia or Canada, they speak with accents or unique dialects, they have dramatic life changes that are always happening.  They’ve had a series of very unique illnesses and they share extensive medical details with you.  They attempt to engage you in random banter that has nothing to do with your forum group (“Do you all really look like the Housewives of New Jersey?  Of course we have kangaroos here,  you have to be careful when you’re driving around so that you don’t hit them.  Here, let me write a helpful glossary of terms that us Aussies like to use.”)  They go into every.little.detail of a story, and their posts are paragraphs long.  Their comments read like novels, complete with flowery language and superfluous information.

Trolls love drama.  They engage you in debates, and manage to find the time to respond to posts all.night.long.  They press your buttons on purpose, and then lash out with personal attacks when you respond.  They act very hurt and personally offended when you blow their cover, and say things like “Wow, you really have no sympathy for single moms” or “I thought this was a safe place for all of us to share”.  They make YOU feel guilty, and make YOU question your gut instincts.

3)  “Great, so now I think that everyone is a troll.   What do I do?”

Use common sense.  As nice as it is to meet “friends” online, keep your guard up.  Don’t share identifying details about your life unless you know someone in real life.  Hold online folks to real life standards.  If someone is on a mothering forum all day long, and they have copious amounts of time to engage in dramatic exchanges, how are they finding time to do the actual work of mothering?

If something feels icky, or makes your stomach fluttery, then trust your gut!  In our real lives we have our guards up.  We are savvy and wary and safe.  If a complete stranger came up to you on the street and told you that she was recovering from a terrible illness, you wouldn’t sit there and talk to her for hours.  Why would you do that online with someone you don’t have a history with?

Go into your online interactions expecting to get scammed once in a while.  I used to tell my adoption clients to assume from the beginning that they will encounter a scam or two.  They’re that prevalent.  Knowing that they’re coming takes the sting out of them, and empowers you to trust your gut.

Play detective.  Someone’s story doesn’t add up?  Take a look at previous posts and put the pieces together.  Someone says they’re in Australia, but they’re posting in the middle of their “night”?  Someone calls all of their kids by nicknames on the forum, but gives details about the child abuse case that their relative is involved in?  If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, well…..quack, quack ladies.

Take swift and decisive action.  If someone is making you uncomfortable online, block them immediately.  Tell the moderator of your forum.  If you saw a creep hanging out around your local playground, you’d call the cops.  You wouldn’t try to convince yourself that maybe you were just being mean or overreacting.  Ask yourself, “What would I do if I was having this conversation at a cocktail party with a stranger?”  Would you politely excuse yourself, or would you allow someone to shove past your personal boundaries?

Emotional scammers will make you feel gross.  They’ll make you angry.  They’ll make you doubt yourself.  They’ll make you regret that you ever gave them ((((HUGS))))) or hearts or xoxo’s.    The real connections that we make on the Internet are beautiful and honest and important.  Some of my closest friends (and hello, my husband?!) have come from online interactions.  Relish the closeness that online communities provide, but do it with your “real life” hat on.  Expect that people should behave online like they do in real life.  Hold them to the same standards that you would hold any new friend.  As nice as it is to make friends online, we are all strangers until we prove ourselves otherwise.


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