Types of Online Deception


Neil C. Rowe


U.S. Naval Postgraduate School

Code CS/Rp, 833 Dyer Road, Monterey, California 93943 USA





Deception in virtual communities can be a serious issue. We present three approaches to characterizing online deception: by the appearance, by the motivation, and by the mechanism. Appearances include identity deception, mimicking, lying (by insincere statements, false excuses, or false promises), and fraud. Motivations can be both aggressive and defensive. Mechanisms are analyzed using concepts from case grammar in linguistics. Fundamentally new forms of deception not in these taxonomies are unlikely in virtual communities.


This article appeared in the Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities and Technologies, Hershey, PA: Idea Group, 2005.





Like all societies, online communities can be victimized by deception by their members. It is helpful to identify the forms in which deception can occur ("taxonomies") to better prepare responses. While deception can often be ignored in informal interaction, it is more serious when online communities, subgroups, or pairs of members attempt to accomplish tasks together.





Online deception can occur in many ways. Many of these are "lies", false statements intended to gain some advantage to the liar (Bok, 1978), but deception includes indirect methods too. Common forms of deception in virtual communities are (Grazioli & Jarvenpaa, 2003):

        Identity deception, pretending to be a different person or kind of person than one really is (Donath, 1998). This is intrinsic to online fantasy worlds but occurs not infrequently in other interactions, as when participants in a discussion group pretend to a different gender, background, or personality than their true one (Cornwell & Lundgren, 2001). It can also occur in failure to reveal a critical bias, as when an employee of a company endorses their company's product in a discussion group without revealing their employment ("shilling"). The frequent lack of aural and visual clues in cyberspace particularly facilitates identity deception.

        Mimicking of data and processes. Examples are fake Web pages intended to steal credit-card numbers, fake bills for services not rendered, and hijacking of sites and connections. Such events are increasingly common.

        Insincere responses to other people, including posturing and exaggeration of responses. This can include substitution of a different emotional response for the one actually felt (Ford, 1996), or "trolling" by deliberately seeming stupid to provoke people (Donath, 1998). Insincerity is also facilitated by the lack of visual and aural feedback.

        False excuses. Alleged reasons for not doing something (Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983) are common online because they are often hard to confirm.

        False promises. False advertising is an example, where limited ability to view and feel a product online permits inflated claims by the seller. In news groups due to the sporadic appearance of members of a virtual community, there may not be as much social pressure to fulfill commitments as in the real world. This can lead to strange phenomena such as fake virtual suicide (Brundage, 2001).

        Coordinated ?disinformation? campaigns to convince people of something false (Floridi, 1996).

        Other forms of fraud, attempts to fool people to achieve criminal ends (McEvoy, Albro, & McCracken, 2001; Mitnick, 2002), either directly (like fake investments or fake charities) or indirectly (like stealing credit-card numbers or sending email with implanted viruses).


Motivation for Deception


Another way to classify deception is by its motivation. (Ford, 1996) and (Eckman, 1991) enumerate reasons for lying, most of which apply to nonverbal deception as well.


        Lies to avoid punishment, as when a member of a virtual community violates its rules about secrecy and denies it.

        Lies as an act of aggression, as when a member lies to someone by whom they have been hurt.

        Lies to create a sense of power, as when a member lies to provoke a reaction from another.

        Lies as wish fulfillment, as when a member lies about their job or sex.

        Lies to assist self-deception, as when a member lies about the state of their marriage to justify an extramarital affair to themselves.

        Lies to help someone, as when a member feigns interest in a subject important to a friend.

        Lies to assist another's self-deception, as when a member lies to approve of lies by a friend.

        Lies to resolve role conflict, as when a member pretends to enjoy an exercise to impress other members.

        Lies for enjoyment, as when a member enjoys tricking a new member.



Mechanisms of Online Deception


Deception can be classified with respect to mechanism used. (Whaley, 1992) proposes a six-part taxonomy with "masking", "repackaging", and "dazzling" as forms of "hiding the real", and "mimicking", "inventing", and "decoying" as forms of "showing the false". (Grazioli & Jarvenpaa, 2003) suggests for online deception the categories of "masking", "dazzling", "decoying", "mimicking", "inventing", "relabeling", and "double playing", and gives statistics of their online use. (Rowe & Rothstein, 2004) proposes a comprehensive taxonomy based on case grammars for linguistics, or ways to categorize how events can have associated concepts:


Besides these general mechanisms, there are additional opportunities for deception in particular virtual communities. (Mintz, 2002) surveys common deceptions on the World Wide Web, including misleading Web sites and Web scams like the many forms of the "Nigerian letter" soliciting money for bogus enterprises. (Mitnick, 2002) provides a good survey of "social engineering" deceptions aimed at stealing information and money from computers by manipulating the people that use them. (Cohen, 1999) provide a general taxonomy of malicious deceptions used to attack computer systems themselves.


Future Trends


As a broader range of society is represented in virtual communities, deception will become more prevalent. New deception methods are unlikely to appear ? plenty of good scams from millenia of deception have already been conceived. But many old scams and ploys will appear in new disguises in cyberspace.




Many forms of deception are possible in virtual communities, due to the difficulties of confirming information about the participants (although certain details, like when someone has been present, are easier to confirm for online activity). It is important for all members of virtual communities to be aware of the major kinds of deception as a first step toward combatting it. With such awareness, countermeasures can be developed such as requiring additional authentication and confirmation before taking actions.




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Brundage, S. (2001, February). Playing with death. Computer Gaming World, 29-31.

Cohen, F. (1999). Simulating cyber attacks, defenses, and consequences. Retrieved May 16, 1999 from all.net/journal/ntb/simulate/simulate.html.

Cornwell, B., & Lundgren, D. (2001). Love on the Internet: Involvement and misrepresentation in romantic relationships in cyberspace versus realspace. Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 197-211.

Donath, J. (1998). Identity and deception in the virtual community. In Kollock, P., & Smith, M. (Eds.), Communities in Cyberspace. London: Routledge.

Eckman, P. (2001). Telling lies: clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage. New York: Norton.

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Grazioli, S., & Jarvenpaa, S. (2003, December). Deceived: under target online. Communications of the ACM, 46 (12), 196-205.

McEvoy, A., Albro, E., & McCracken, H. (2001, May). Dot cons -- auction scams, dangerous downloads, investment and credit-card hoaxes. PC World, 19 (5), 107-116.

Mitnick, K. (2002). The art of deception. New York: Cyber Age Books.

Mintz, A. P. (ed.) (2002). Web of deception: misinformation on the Internet, CyberAge Books, New York.

Rowe, N., & Rothstein, H. (2004, July). Two taxonomies of deception for attacks on information systems. Journal of Information Warfare, 3 (2), 27-39.

Snyder, C. R., Higgins, R. L., and Stucky, R. J. (1983). Excuses: masquerades in search of grace. New York: Wiley.

Whaley, B. (1982, March). Towards a general theory of deception. Journal of Strategic Studies, 5 (1), 179-193.




case grammar: A linguistic theory of the ways in which an action can be associated with other concepts.

deception: Conveying or implying false information to other people.

disinformation: False information repeatedly provided in a coordinated campaign.

excuses: Reasons for not doing something.

identity deception: Pretending to be someone or some category of person that one is not.

lies: False statements known by the utterer to be false.

shilling: Making claims (pro or con) for something without revealing that you have a financial stake in it.

social engineering: Using deception to steal information like passwords from people.

trolling: Acting in a deliberately inflammatory way to provoke a response online, usually in a newsgroup and usually with insincerity.





This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under the Cyber Trust program.