A Little Social Engineering Goes A Long Way - 05.10.99

For about the past six months or so, I've belonged to an internet mailing list dedicated to electronic music. It serves as a place for different people across the world to discuss, sell, and trade electronic music in an open forum. As an avid collector of music in the genre, I've had quite a good time reading posts and interacting with the different people there. The crazy thing was that it was also the first mailing list that I'd ever belonged to.

As I got more used to how it worked by reading e-mails and figuring out how the system worked, I decided to hop into the fray by submitting my own list of CD's that I wanted to get rid of. No sooner had I sent out the e-mail than I got back several replies from different people wanting things that I had posted. Through e-mail discussions, we worked out trades and I sent everything off. Within a week, I had a couple new packages of CDs that I wanted, while the others that had traded with me (hopefully) had the same thing. It was a win-win situation and I was completely excited by it all. Instead of taking back CD's to the music store and getting maybe 4 dollars or so for them, for the price of postage (about 1 dollar for one CD), I could mail out a disc to someone and get something I didn't have in return.

Over the course of a couple months, I conducted over 10 trades with people, and although the music I got wasn't amazing every time, I learned to do more research about what I was getting and how to get better trades in general. It was really cool to me that I had found a place that worked on the honor system where everyone seemed generally enthuised about the music and weren't (for the most part) just trying to rip others off.

Then, about 2 months ago it happened. I worked out a deal with someone and sent off their CD's, only to wait well over a week until I had recieved mine. I sent them an e-mail and they responded by telling me that they would put them in the mail that day.

Again, I waited over another week, then e-mailed them again and told them that I still hadn't gotten anything.

This time, I didn't hear back from them and started to get a little upset. I had seen e-mails on the list before about bad traders, but the person that I had made the trade with wasn't a name that had come up before and they had seemed really into things by the tone of their e-mail. One month passed, though, and I hadn't heard anything by e-mail for well over 3 weeks. I e-mailed them twice a week as a reminder, hoping that it would get through to them and I would finally get my package.

It didn't happen.

Finally, I decided that I would give them one more week, then I would post to the list (usually damaging someone's reputation for good) about their bad trading. I didn't want to do it if I didn't have to, and I wanted to really give them the benefit of the doubt just in case.

After one week, I still hadn't heard anything, so I checked my e-mail the morning I was to send out a notice and found that 4 other people had already beaten me to the punch. Not only was this person ripping me off, but they were withholding trades from 4 other people on the list (who were in varying degrees of rage about not getting their things).

It was about this time that I completely signed-off hope of ever receiving anything from the person I had traded with. None of the people who had posted had heard from the person in a month, and it looked like they had simply skipped out and made off with a lot of goods. I thought about my options and checked the e-mail address of the person who owed me one more time. It was an address that had a university extension (.edu), so I went to the website of the college it was attached to and did a directory search for the name that I had sent the package to about one and a half months earlier.

Bingo. The search not only pulled up the person's full name, but it told me what department they were in, what year in school they were, what their phone number at school was, and their mailing address. At first, thoughts of reeking total havoc on the person (war-dialing their phone, bombing their account with e-mails) came to mind, but I decided that being civil would still be the best option.

After consulting with other members of the list who had been ripped, I decided that I would write a letter to the system administator at said bad traders school, informing them of the negative posts that were being made about them (and therefore, by association making the school name look bad). I figured that most schools wouldn't enjoy that kind of publicity too much, and that maybe the bad trader would get a little call about how they were using the school e-mail system for their deeds.

Being the nice guy that I was, though, I decided to give the person one final chance. I wrote them an e-mail informing them of my plan of action, and used their full name (middle included) and campus phone number as the e-mail heading, just to get their attention.

When I checked my e-mail the next day, surprise surprise, I had a monster e-mail from the person both backpedalling and accusing me of defamation of character at the same time. At first, I thought that I might have done something stupid, but then I realized that nothing I said in the letter I had sent was untrue. Plus, I had 4 other people on the list who were willing to back up my claims.

I e-mailed the person back and explained myself a little more fully, and they came back with another letter that was a little nicer in tone (perhaps realizing that they were the ones who were wrong in the situation). They apologized for their bad dealings and asked if I would e-mail the rest of those who had complained and tell them that their packages were going to be put in the mail.

Within a week and a half, my package arrived, and judging from e-mails sent to the list, so did everyone elses. The trader who had taken so long still had a horrible reputation because of taking so long (an almost pulling off a complete rip of 5 people), but for the most part, everyone came away from the deal without losing anything, except for a little time.

I even got one e-mail of thanks from a person on the list for the actions I had taken, even though it really seemed like the only logical thing to do for me. Now, I'm up to over 15 trades, and hoping that it doesn't happen again.