When launched in 2006 by Timo Ala-Kleemola and Sami Tolvanen, few people could have seen the scam the website mywot.com (Web of Trust) would eventually become although the roots for the scheme were firmly laid back then. With one singular goal in mind, Timo and Sami set out to be the next dot com billionaires - they wanted money and didn’t care who they hurt to get it.
From the get-go Timo and Sami designed their system to be the perfect stealth spyware. It was spyware people would gladly invite into their homes, and continue to willingly feed it personal information because it would be disguised as “scam detection software”. They had seen enough movies to realize that the best con games convince the person to willingly give up their money rather than deceitfully take it.
They concocted a scheme by which users would “rate” websites as either good or bad. The rating would then be transmitted back to Timo and Sami’s servers and users wouldn’t think anything is wrong with that - after all they chose to send the information. Trick is that piggybacking along with the rating would be data scraped from the user’s hard drive. They had dreamed up the perfect scam.
So Timo and Sami set off to design their spyware and ironically dub it the “Web of Trust”. The programming was the easy part, it was more difficult to hatch a process that would keep people coming back to the site again and again, continually feeding Timo and Sami their passwords, banking information, and browsing habits.
That’s when they invented the “reputation system”. The more sites a user rates, the higher their reputation goes, which fills the user with a sense of self importance and a desire to rate more sites and raise their reputation even higher. It keeps them coming back and sending up to the minute information from the user. It’s an ingenious scam to continually milk the same user over and over.
Timo and Sami launch the site in 2006 and rope in their first marks, making a fair amount of money, but not in the amounts they initially hoped for; not to mention they don’t have the connections to sell a lot of the information they’re amassing. That’s when “serial entrepreneur” Esa Suurio enters the company with new avenues and a rolodex full of contacts for Timo and Sami to exploit.
When Esa came on board the program had reached a certain level of popularity where many companies were starting to feel the pinch and began contacting the Web of Trust offices about removing the harmful information from their website. It was at this juncture that Timo, Sami and Esa realized they had discovered a whole new revenue stream.
The group would then charge companies large sums of money to remove negative ratings and posts from their message board. So long as they had millions of users everyday posting negative comments and dolling out bad reviews like candy, they would have an endless stream of revenue - especially if they charge for each instance that needs removal.
Of course all of this would continually need to be done under the cloak of legitimacy. Magazine articles would be lined up with top computer publications touting the “safety” and “protection” offered by the Web of Trust. Like a good pick-pocket they were distracting people on the left while robbing them on the right. The reporters believed the company’s legitimacy because the operations they were shown were, in fact, on the up and up. That’s the beauty of the system. It doesn’t matter that there’s all types of unethical and illegal activity going on in the back office so long as the front office looks clean and spiffy.
The scam continues today, although cracks are starting to show. Recently CEO Esa Suurio announced he was ditching the company, leaving them holding the bag. It’s just become too obvious that the company should not still be afloat without an obvious revenue stream, and Esa is probably worried that he’ll be indicted - so it’s best to cut and run now.
That leaves original founders Timo Ala-Kleemola and Sami Tolvanen as the sole originating conspirators. Although it’s entirely possible they too will soon leave to deflect their own culpability in the matter.