Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Companies and consumers both need to be wary of social media’s perils

It is now more important than ever to secure social networks and the world wide web

Social media, due to its immense popularity and widespread penetration, has emerged as one of the most powerful tools for businesses and marketers to interact with existing and potential customers. From being a platform to remain connected with friends and relatives to being the primary source of news and information for many, these platforms have also evolved to become an important part of our daily lives.

But then, can the criminals and fraudsters be far behind?

The latest controversy surrounding WhatsApp and the existence of an Israeli spyware, known as Pegasus, which targeted specific users through the immensely popular app, also raises concerns about internet security and quality credibility. WhatsApp has always been considered very secure because of its end-to-end encryption, a feature that was often highlighted as the hallmark of security and privacy. That an infected app renders vulnerable, all data on the user’s phone, including e-mails, photographs and documents, indicates just how dangerous the online world really is. Now, security concerns have led to an increase in downloads of Telegram app, a competitor of WhatsApp, showing how concerned consumers continue to keep looking for safer modes of social and online communication.

A major portion of our lives today has something or the other to do with the online world, all the time—be it the convenience of anytime-anywhere banking, online shopping, instant messaging or social networking. Criminals and fraudsters, too, are seized of the matter, and are lurking around waiting for their next victim.

The online world is like a double-edged sword. While on one hand it is very convenient for us to connect with others, on the other, it leaves us exposed to the dangers of fraudsters and cyber criminals. The same goes for businesses, as the internet can help them expand their reach and, at the same time, makes it easier for fraudsters and counterfeiters to peddle their fakes and duplicates.

Along with loss of personal data and identity theft, social media usage increases our exposure to fakes and counterfeit goods. A recent study found that up to 60% of online search results lead consumers to websites that sell fake and possibly dangerous goods. Such products, apart from causing financial and reputational loss to the manufacturers, often expose unsuspecting buyers with substandard goods.

Our interaction and activities in the online world happens through internet intermediaries and their platforms. These intermediaries are the face of the internet for general users and every internet intermediary. They, therefore, can influence the information we access, the choices we make and what we buy online.

It is now more important than ever to secure social networks and the world wide web to not only safeguard individual users, but also to ensure a level-playing field for manufacturers and distributors. A major loophole, and one that is often quoted by the internet intermediaries, is that they are merely providing a service and cannot be held responsible for actions of a third party.

The matter of counterfeits being pushed through online channels, including social media networks, is a matter of grave concern, as pharmaceuticals, children’s products and white goods are some of the most popular counterfeits peddled online.

Today, product searches online, including those through social media platforms, are largely populated by sites selling potentially harmful goods. These sites enjoy high visibility and attract significant traffic to their pages, and it is high time that in the interest of consumer health and safety, and to ensure manufacturers of genuine products enjoy a level-playing field, that the internet intermediaries own up and take proactive steps to effectively prevent the advertisement and sale of counterfeit and fake goods on their platforms.

As consumers, we also need to stay alert and buy genuine products. Goods offered at heavy discounts for no plausible reason is a good indicator of a product being counterfeit. There are also visual cues and quality aspects that can help in identifying fakes. Manufacturers and distributors have also built-in identifiers in the product and packaging that can be used to verify authenticity of the product online. There are also app-based tools that are quite handy, and and allow users to report fakes from their Android and iOS phones.

Sanjay Kaushik is managing director of Netrika Consulting.

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