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Something to think about... / blog
When Tracking Goes Wrong

Written by on September 30, 2015

I have been writing a lot about privacy, tracking and all the problems we have with it. For instance, in 'The Blocking Problem', I summarize the whole issue around ad blockers, and in 'What Is Tracking And What Isn't Tracking' I take you on a tour of both the good and the bad types of tracking.

But I want to illustrate an example of why we need to fix this problem, based on something that happened to me this week.

It started because my floor lamp in my living room stopped working. I have no idea why, but it just can't turn on anymore. The wire seems fine, the light bulbs are fine, and the electricity is flowing. It just doesn't work. So, I went to IKEA's website to see if I could find another one.

IKEA's website looks like any other website, and as a customer I feel that it's a place that I can trust. And I probably can... except that I can't.

You see, a little later I received this text message on my phone.

For those of you who can't read Danish, it says: You have won a gift card to IKEA for DKK 200. Click here [...]

First of all, spam like this is illegal to send in my country, so that was the first warning sign.

However, the second problem was that I never logged in to IKEA's website, nor do they have my number (since I have not yet created an account). So how did they know what my number was?

I decided to investigate it.

The first thing I noticed was the sender. It says IKEA on the menu, but the actual number is a generic 4532. So that was a bit weird.

The second problem was the URL. It links to a bit.ly link, and not to IKEA, but maybe they are just trying to save space. So, I went to longurl.org, a marvelous site that allows you to expand short links without clicking on them, and it told me this:

The actual URL goes to an ad tracking company. Okay, so maybe IKEA is using them as their 'partner'? But no. Because when you explore that link, you end up on this URL.

You will notice that this looks a bit odd. Why is a URL about password storage sending a campaign about IKEA gift cards? More to the point, notice that storage is spelled incorrectly, as 'strorage'.

So, clearly this is a scam.

The page you end up on (which I retrieved via an online screenshot service, because there is no way I'm going to click on this link on my phone), looks real enough.

But there are a number of problems here. The first thing is that the page tells you to pay them DKK 5 with your credit card in order to win (which is also illegal in my country as contests cannot require a sale). But then they also say that only the first 100 people will actually 'win'.

Secondly, if you read the small print, you will realize that by paying the DKK 5, you are actually signing up for a monthly payment plan, in which every month you will be charged DKK 299. And they will also tell you to wait at least 30 days for your gift certificate to arrive (meaning, you are giving them time to automatically renew you for the DKK 299 before you get anything from them).

Everything about this, of course, is a scam. It's a trick used to cheat people into giving them your credit card.

And IKEA probably is as much a victim here as the people who fall for it. It is very unlikely that IKEA has any relation to these scammers, since other Danish companies, who have also been hit by this scam, had no relationship with them at all.

But, wait-a-minute, all of this started after I had visited IKEA. How did these scammers know that I had visited IKEA in the first place? Where is the link?

So, I turned to IKEA's website to check what kind of sites it had loaded into my browser, and what kind of tracking that was taking place, and the result was this:

These are 36 partner sites, each setting their own 3rd party tracking cookies, that is loaded when you visit IKEA's website. Some are good (like YouTube), others are not.

Why should I be exposed to all this crap, just because I wanted to buy a new floor lamp for my home?

What the hell?

Mind you, there are several levels of privacy violations taking place here. First of all, I never identified myself to IKEA, but somehow this scammer not only knew where I had been, they also had my phone number (which they must have gotten from some other sites that also tracks me).

This is not acceptable.

Mind you, I'm not saying that IKEA can't include advertising on its site, nor that they can't use 3rd party services. Read my article about tracking to know the distinction.

But we are so far away from any form of trustworthy behavior that we can possibly get

If I want to buy a floor lamp from IKEA, I do not want 36 other companies to know about it. And I will certainly not allow one or more of these 36 companies to then sell that information to an unknown number of other partners that they have. Nor will I allow that the data is then 'data brokered' into a place that allows someone to take my anonymous visit to IKEA's website and link that directly to my personal phone number (which means they know exactly who I am).

I will only allow first-party companies to track me. In other words, I have no problem with IKEA tracking what I am doing on their site. I'm fine with that. In fact, I love that they are doing it, because it means if I visit them again today, all the products I added to my shopping cart yesterday are still in there.

That's wonderful.

But this whole industry of third-party tracking has gone berserk, and we have had enough. This is the reason why the ad-blocking trend is booming.

People are fighting back. But they shouldn't have to fight back at all. We, as brands and publishers, must understand is that this isn't acceptable behavior in the first place.

We need to invent a new form of advertising and tracking that doesn't involve giving information to data brokers.

And, mind you, some of you might say that this type of tracking is what makes it work. First of all, that is simply not true. You can do advertising in a far better way, without all this tracking taking place. I'm writing about this, so stay tuned, but just think about focusing intent, rather than what people do across sites.

Intent is a million times better than targeting.

Secondly, I will show you this graph from Google Trends.

Do you think this retargeting is really working? Or do you think we are optimizing for the wrong goals, at the expense of our very future? I fully understand that, in theory, retargeting and remarketing can be quite useful and not be problematic at all. But the reality is quite different when we look at the trends.

It's time to put an end to this madness.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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