The A-Z of fakes (T-Z)

From tickets to zebras, E&T continues its rundown of counterfeit and fake technologies

T is for tickets

According to the UK’s fraud reporting centre Action Fraud one in 12 ticket buyers will fall victim to scam ticket websites, where tickets either do not arrive or are fake resulting in the average loss of £80 per person. Internet users and music lovers should be on their guard against sophisticated online scams aimed at conning them out of money for fake tickets. These make the consumer believe they have paid for tickets that don’t exist or are unusable, and untrustworthy companies will then hold their card details.

Free expert advice company Get Safe Online predict huge problems during summer months as festival and concert season provide opportunities for cyber criminals. According to Get Safe Online one in 10 people are victims or know of someone who has experienced online ticketing scams. Cyber criminals will often pay professional web designers so their sites appear genuine, which then helps scammers pay for search advertising, enabling their fake sites to appear at the top of event search results.

In December 2011 US company Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) warned travel agents to observe incoming emails carefully for signs of fraudulent activity as US company Travel Market Report uncovered an increase in ticketing scams. ARC revealed during August-November 2011, 82 fraudulent incidents were reported compared to only 18 incidents in 2010.

U is for UFOs

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in history have so many been duped so much by so few...

In these days of digital photographs it’s beyond easy to fake a UFO shot. A quick dabble in Photoshop for the malcious fakes, or a snapshot of an unusually-shaped hot-air balloon for the more suggestible, particularly the popular Asian Kom Loys (with burning candles inside) made of Sa (Mulberry) paper.

According to Project Overlord, over 95 per cent of the so-called UFO photos are pure hoaxes, and the rest are images of some uncertain, yet definitely rather more mundane, objects.

Many ‘UFO photos’ taken at night are those of aircraft flying overhead, their images distorted by light and/or clouds, and many people get confused by the sights of astronomical phenomena, such as northern or southern lights, passing comets and meteorite showers, and mistakenly think those were UFOs.

Other common UFO delusions can be caused by so-called lenticular clouds, or by noctiluscent clouds, made up of ice particles which reflect the sunlight and therefore appear to glow from within. It is also not unusual to mistake a ball lightning for a UFO.

One interesting correlation: the number of sightings tends to grow at the times of hardship when people may look for solace and distractions.

V is for violins

When genuine Stradivarius violins change hands for millions, it’s easy to understand the excitement experienced by the many people who each year think they’ve discovered one in their attic. Sadly (or happily), all the 650 surviving examples of instruments made by Antonio Stradivari during his lifetime are accounted for.

So just a little research will reveal a fake Strad, but even then it may not be all bad news. Researchers who asked 21 experienced violinists to take part in double-blind comparisons of the real thing and high-quality new instruments found that there was little correlation between age, value and perceived quality. Results of the work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that the most preferred instrument was a new one, the least preferred was a genuine Stradivarius, and most players seemed unable to tell whether their favourite was new or old.

Future violinists may even be able to enjoy the best of both worlds, thanks to a new technique that uses medical scanning technology to produce the most accurate copies yet of vintage instruments.

US radiologist and amateur violinist Steven Sirr worked with professional violin makers John Waddle and Steve Rossow to create a replica of a 1704 Stradivarius violin known as ‘Betts’ held in the US Library of Congress. Generating more than 1,000 computerised tomography images of the real thing allowed them to measure the violin’s wood density, size, shape, thickness and volume, as well as identifying damage and previous repairs.

The images were converted into stereolithographic files for reading by computer-controlled CNC router, custom-made for the project, that carved the back and front plates and scroll of the violin from various woods. The replica was then finished, assembled and varnished by hand.

“Just like human beings, there is a wide range of normal variation among violins,” Dr Sirr told the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in November 2011. “When you are looking at an instrument that is hundreds of years old, you will see worm holes and cracks that have been repaired, as well as damage from being exposed to all kinds of conditions, from floods to wars.”

The work has two aims, Sirr added: to understand how the violin works and to make reproductions of prized violins available for young musicians who can’t afford an original.

W is for websites

Considering how easy it is to create convincingly-designed webpages, it’s surprising that the World Wide Web is not awash with more faux websites; even basic web design packages provide pre-designed templates that mean anyone can knock together a site that purports to be something other than it really is.

Less surprising is the fact that every day people are taken in by the sites that are out there. Although fake websites often exist with criminal intent lurking behind them, they are also often created to make humorous points, or in protest against the perceived iniquities of an organisation or entity, although such sites have been clamped down on as big brands assertively protect their brand integrity through legal means.

It is primarily in the cyber scam context that most Internet users will likely encounter a fake website. Sites that accept payment for goods and services that fail to arrive do still exist, but the margins for the phantom retailers have been squeezed in recent years as the payment processors have tightened up their monitoring of merchant crooks. One aspect of Web fakery that continues to thrive, however, is fake ticket sites that take money either for tickets that don’t exist or in return for counterfeit coupons.

Despite repeated public warnings, such sites continue to thrive. There are several factors working in their favour. First, the concept of buying event tickets through resellers and agencies, rather than directly from a venue, is widely perceived as accepted practice, even though it is not always easy to verify which the accredited ticket agents are. Next, in the clamour to snap up limited numbers of tickets, fans of a particular rock band or sports team, say, are apt to be hasty in making their purchase. Last, the ‘window of availability’ nature of ticket sales means that fake sites can be made live and taken down over a few days, leaving less evidence for the investigating authorities to go on. A few days are enough for significant loot to be swiped. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau reckons that in 2010 ticketing fraud was estimated to have cost the UK £168m, with some 500,000 victims losing £80 on average.

When judging whether a website is fake or not, you have to glean something of the powers that lie behind it. For instance, a recent investigation by the Journal of Business Ethics delved into the murky realm of so-called ‘Astroturf’ organisations. These are fake grassroots organisations usually sponsored by large corporations to support favoured arguments or claims, or to challenge and deny opponents. They constitute the corporate version of grassroots social movements.

Serious ethical and societal concerns underline this practice, believes the Journal of Business Ethics, especially if corporations are successful in influencing public opinion by undertaking a social movement approach. The publication conducted an experiment to determine whether ‘astroturf’ websites have an impact on the level of user certainty about causes of global warming. Results showed that people who used them did become more uncertain about the causes of global warming and humans’ role in the phenomenon than people who used genuine grassroots websites.

The paradox with many fake websites is that, although they often show proficiency in creating pages that look as professionally produced as their genuine counterparts, experts say that most fakes contain characteristics that would reveal them as suspect to the informed scrutiniser.

Researchers at the University of Arizona’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Management Information Systems department, for example, have developed a system to detect spoof sites. It utilises thousands of both visible and embedded ‘cues’, such as placement, URL length, the number of links, character and font types, and how thorough FAQ sections are detailed, among other features, to establish patterns of commonality with other, known fake websites. It just could be that alerting surfers to fake sites will become a standard component of next-generation browsers.

X is for X-ray

The most common way to combat fake goods is to add overt and covert methods of authentication. But it’s not always possible. In the world of art and antiquity, for example, forgery has always been rife. Detecting originals has always been a subtle and meticulous process of looking at patterns such as brush strokes of a great painter. There were no hologram stickers in Da Vinci’s day.

Additionally, how do you authenticate an item without disturbing its contents? Perhaps it is packaged up - or there are particular components you want to authenticate. This is where X-ray technology is useful as a non-destructive scientific method of investigation. The most common type, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis can work out the chemical composition of artefacts or goods without conducting a teardown. The Royal Armouries museum regularly uses XRF analysis.

X-rays are generated using an X-ray tube and focused onto the surface to be analysed. At its simplest, the technique examines the signal given off by an object that has had X-rays directed at it. This signal shows which chemical elements are present, and what quantities. The technique is capable of great accuracy with clean, flat, homogenous samples that can be compared with standards of similar, known, composition.

Y is for yetis

One interesting development in the persisting myth of Yeti occurred recently thousands of miles away from the creature’s alleged abode in the Himalayas: a mysterious little exhibit labelled ‘Yeti’s Mummified Finger’ was uncovered in the storage rooms of the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London, UK.

The semi-forgotten relic was reportedly smuggled out of Nepal by the American explorer Peter Byrne in the 1950s and has been part of the Royal College’s collections since then.

In a massive blow to all Yeti believers, new DNA tests conducted by scientists at Edinburgh Zoo last December established without a shadow of doubt that the finger was actually human and the object, or at least its label, was therefore fake.

From Russia they report, however, that Yeti’s sightings are on the rise, and a special research institute dedicated to Yeti studies is in the process of being set up.

One noteworthy correlation, much like with the UFOs, is that the frequency Yeti sightings - as well as that of other paranormal phenomena - always increases at the time of uncertainty and unrest in the Russian society, and there’s definitely a lot of both in the run-up to this year’s presidential elections. Like in the old Soviet times, the authorities are using the whole arsenal of fakes to divert people’s attention from some burning political and social issues. As they say in France, plus ça change.

Z is for zebras

If you can’t find a real zebra, no problem: you can always fake one. All you need is a white pony, horse or donkey and a can of black paint. Or, in the case of a black animal, white paint. Jokes aside, there was at least one recorded instance, when faked zebras, i.e. painted horses, were used for a good practical cause: in March 2010 they were paraded by police through Moscow’s busiest roads and intersections with one simple aim - to encourage some unruly pedestrians (of whom there are plenty in Moscow) to use zebra crossings.

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