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Invited to join by someone you don't know?

You receive an email from someone you don't know, inviting you to join a new online community. It might be a dating agency, or a discussion forum, or a fan site, or a community of people who have a shared interest. More recently it might be some form of social networking. The point is, though, you're being enticed into joining some site or other by someone who you don't know. There's nothing wrong with that, but in some of these situations, the person sending out the invitation claims to know you and claims that you are a close friend. So, what do you do?

There is a simple answer: Write a polite friendly message to the person who has invited you, and ask why they are inviting you, where they know you from, and other reasonable questions. Be careful to avoid giving away any personal information, and see if you get a reply.

If the invitation is genuine, you will almost certainly get a friendly message back saying things like "Of course, don't you remember me? We met in [wherever] and you said..." and they'll include things which could not have been found by spamlike info harvesting online. You can tell if this is genuine because people you've met know a few personal things about you. (Often irrelevant things which happen by chance, and aren't anything to do with security).

The method is a bit like the one for if you receive an online greeting card. You can easily tell the genuine eCard from the malicious virus spyware attack, and without taking a risk. Just ask the sender.

With online communities and social networks, some of them are desperate to get new members to join, and so not all of the invitations sent out are genuine. However, you can soon tell which of the invitations you are getting are genuine by the fact that the friendly people will reply, talk to you, get into discussions with you, etc. If someone is a fan of yours, they'll be eager to talk. In contrast, people who just want you to join as another number to chalk up, have no interest in you personally and will not want to waste their time talking to you when they could be out there rounding up a few other mugs to rope in. Facebook Spam is a problem, and so is spam sent to lure people into joining other networks. I have caught-out Badoo sending spam, and Zorpia is infested with the problem. Also, LinkedIn invitation messages are almost always scams, phishing attacks.

Of course there's nothing wrong with complete strangers writing to you with questions and invitations for all sorts of things, but they have to be honest. It's not fair if they pretend to be long-lost friends with heartfelt wishes to know you better when they are actually sales-reps.

Typically, the incoming invitation is sent by the online community site, and is a snazzy business message, but sent on behalf of the individual who is presumed to be a member. You are allowed to reply, either directly to the email address of the person, or back via the network (without joining, of course!). If they insist you join in order to reply, then it is almost without shadow of a doubt, a scam!

Even if the network or online community is genuine, it's possible they may have got a security hole where their affiliates are being paid for fraudulent leads. If you think that's what's going on, you should write to the network or online community and ask. If they are genuine they'll write back and tell you something helpful. However, if the main site is complicit in the spambased membership acquisition, then the whole network should be avoided.

It's important that you only join places that you are happy with, and via people who you are happy about. Even if the network is genuine, you should avoid the rewarding of scamsters who have got you to join on a false pretence.

Although this may sound a bit like the dating agency scam, (where fraudsters have infiltrated a dating agency and then try to get money out of other people on that site by advance fee fraud), it's different because in the case of the invitations, you're only being fooled into joining some network or other. Nevertheless, you shouldn't just join without checking, as it could lead to all sorts of trouble. There was a system a while ago which got people to sign up to receive text messages and then it sent them some very dubious messages which cost the recipient. This has left a lasting stain on the industry.

If you decide to join a network, you should use a different e-mail address , and then if the network does something dodgy such as selling the email address list to spam-senders and/or fraudsters, you will know, and then you can easily cut that email address off, while keeping your other email addresses safe and in use.

Another piece of advice is: Avoid Facebook! Down with Facebook! I believe it is the worst threat to freedom in the world since the rise of Nazi Germany. We need to fight back before it's too late.