Profiling: Multiple Account Users

The art of profiling may seem only relevant to police departments and crime dramas, but using this same system of detective skills is just as useful online when it comes to keeping your community safe. As a detective can track clues left by thieves or other criminals in a town or city, admins can use profiling to spot potential abusers on their forums. Keep in mind, when it comes to human behavior, no system is ever fail-safe! A person may follow the patterns of a stereotype then turn out to surprise you by being an extraordinary member! The biggest mistake any webmaster can do is making assumptions without proper evidence. It is up to you as the admin to practice your skills of prevention as well as deduction before you make accusations. Not every admin has that natural ability or instinct to spot trouble, but with this article you will have an aid in knowing what to expect.

One of the most problematic, yet seemingly ignored problem in forum communities are the multiple account users. One may argue that as long as they aren’t causing trouble, why is this a problem? Well, allowing users to have multiple accounts gives future trouble makers an easy back door to set up camp. Where you may just have the misguided member who just wants the extra attention, you may also have forum trollers that create extra accounts to evade bans and return undaunted. For a larger big-board, it can be difficult to curb multiple accounts - hundreds of registrations a day are a lot to deal with! Still, prevention methods in place can deter most people.

Require admin validation.
A popular forum admin may find this tedious to sift through all new accounts, but it can become a necessary evil in blocking bad users - especially on those larger forums where problems are more likely to occur! Note, that just because you have a big forum, doesn’t mean it’s a good one! Safety of the community should be a top priority! Enlist extra staff to browse registrations if you need them, but try to do it. Another way to keep an eye on new users without the extra work of validating accounts is to make use of a user group system. Have the initial new accounts go through a grace or screening period where they have limited access to major parts of the forum, or have posts moderated. This attention to new members allows mods to get to know who is who before they become an active member. Keeping an eye out for some of the following issues will help you block problem users from your site before they can even get in the door.

Only allow one Username per email address.
Despite the fact most people have more than on email address with any number of free sites, this can deter misinformed or young users and annoy the common troller. If you require members to validate their email, this is even more work for a persistent forum troller, whom will eventually run out of emails or be forced to register a bunch of new ones just to return to your forums.

Look for similarities in email addresses & profiles.
When a user tries to do multiple accounts, they tend to use the same words in their email addresses as well as certain things they say in their profile. Don’t hit the fan when two new users seem to like the same tv show! That’s bound to happen! But when you have a recent user who seems to be a pain in the rear, and suddenly there’s a new account called bobheartstacy@netscape when that other user has bobheartstacy@msn - that’s a warning sign!

Use an IP tracker to compare IP’s to registered members.
Thanks to proxies and ISPs like AOL that recycle IP addresses, this alone cannot be a foolproof way to track new registrations. However, for static IP’s such as cable modems and DSL you can still compare. Learn which companies recycle their IP’s and which don’t. Then you can more easily differentiate between a list of users that have the same IP by coincidence and which might be trying to sneak past you.

Watch dates and timelines.
Even with ever-changing ISPs you can still catch someone at their game by checking the dates and times that they post. An IP wouldn’t usually be recycled within the same ten minute time frame, so if you’re seeing two different accounts posting after each other in the span of five minutes, you have reasonable evidence to assume it might be the same person. Make sure you had suspicious BEFORE you make assumptions! Siblings, friends, ect could be hanging out and using the same computer. If you know your users, you will already be aware of who has family on the forums, which members come from the same school, as well as who has had a history of causing trouble.

Keep an eye on writing styles & post content.
The style of typing/writing for a user is always more difficult to spot. This is not a foolproof system but aids in spotting someone suspicious when you have to have a keen eye for details and use it in combination with other factors. Do the users in question always use the same kind of chat speak? Do they have a common word or phrase they both tend to use in all of their posts? Are they using the same kind of emoticons or smilies repeatedly? You will always find users that seem to act exactly alike, however when trying to make comparisons between suspected users this can sometimes be a giveaway.

Be aware of your “network”.
When your sites gains a certain amount of popularity and a loyal member base, you’ll notice many frequent URLs or mini communities that seem to be popular amongst members. Sometimes it’s a site a member created and invited your members to, or other times it’s just a site many seem to hang out at. This is a part of your network. Whenever your site goes down, or there is a major drama, you’ll find that people will often be on these other communities chatting it up about your website. Keeping an eye on these sites or related communities can help you keep track of members alter aliases. Say, your member Max has been an active member for weeks, but has been causing major issues. You know that Max has accounts on rival sites as user Malcom. One day, a new member called Malcom registers on your site being a good friend of Max’s and helping to cause a scene. This is a signal of a possible multiple account. By using some of the aforementioned tips, you check IPs and post times to discover that indeed these two accounts are the same person!

All of these tips used alone may not be enough to protect your site from multiple account abusers. However, used in conjecture with each other you have a powerful tool in administering your site. Remember the key rule: never make assumptions right off the bat. But always trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to look a little deeper if someone is doing something that causes suspicion. Be a responsible admin, and your members will be grateful!