Saturday, February 11, 2017

Every time Skype updates

Microsoft attempting to force two of their failed products to their unsuspecting users.
I am not sure how ethically correct it is for Microsoft to try to trick the Skype users into setting Bing as the search engine, and MSN as the home page!

I feel it is morally incorrect to make the boxes ticked by default. Have I not paid attention, I would have mistakenly set MSN as the home page and Bing as the search engine. 

I did not visit MSN even once for the past decade, and I don't think I have ever used Bing. This is bad - really bad - more like a virus or adware from Microsoft's end to hijack Skype users. Unsuspecting non techie users may end up with a default home page and default search engine they never asked for. 

Microsoft, pls stop! Get more users in the right way - not by tricking the innocent users and wasting their time! I find it amusing that the third choice, "Make Edge (or IE) as my default browser" is not forced too.

P.S: I vaguely recall mistakenly installing and making McAfee as the default anti-virus when I installed Adobe Reader a year or two ago. So apparently Microsoft is not the only offender.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

TripAdvisor: How fake reviews can ruin your travel diaries..

There are many fake reviews in TripAdvisor. It is easy to spot one that harvests fake reviews. They are usually reviewers just have reviewed only the current one with a 5*. This is not to say that all the once-only reviewers are fake. But if a place is reviewed all 5* by these newbies, that should ring a bell. Moreover, I have seen in freelancing sites "employers" asking for 100s of reviews in sites such as TripAdvisor for a hundred dollars! It can also be friends filling TripAdvisor reviews for a restaurant owner, or even the restaurant employees creating multiple fake accounts to accumulate 5* ratings. 

It can also be social engineering. When I stayed in New Delhi in 2012, the hotel owner asked me to rate them 5* in TripAdvisor. That was my first review! I guess a normal person would have given 5*. Does not hurt. right? But I gave 4*, the rating I thought the hotel deserves (than what the owner hinted)! Would be easier to manipulate one's rating with some benefit (like a discounted rate) though. I am not going to give fake 5* ratings for free stuff though. :) I hope.

Always check the 1* ratings. They may show how the place mistreats the visitors. Also 4* ratings. They tend to be the genuine happy customers. Fake reviewers always give 5*. Not 4*. No one pays to give 4* ratings! Similarly, 2* ratings tend to be more rational than 1* too, unless the restaurant is really fishy and unpleasant.

I sent a detailed report to TripAdvisor content-integrity sometime back on a sample situation. Their response was along the lines of "At the same time, we have privacy policies in place which prevent us from being able to divulge to anyone external to TripAdvisor the results of any investigations."

Apart from being Nepal restaurants in Europe, what is the other similarity shared by "Sushi King, Wijnegem", "Sushi King, Malle", "Leo, Lisbon, Portugal", and "Fishtail, Lisbon, Portugal"? They all have been reviewed by the same set of early reviewers who gave 5* reviews with extra-ordinary positive reviews. These reviewers also created their accounts just to review these restaurants!

The first 2 restaurants are in Belgium and as their name suggests, are owned by a same chain. The last 2 are in Portugal, and owned by an individual (see the attachment for proof, taken from TripAdvisor). There are many accounts that were created to review 2 or 3 among these or just 1 of these restaurants! Some of these reviewers have reviewed 1 or 2 of these restaurants more than once! (5-star each time).

I have attached two reviewers with this association for these 4 restaurants. There are many. Just go through each of these restaurants and click the 5-* ratings. You can see reviewers created solely to review one or a few of these 4 restaurants. All these reviewers are Nepalese or Indian.
One can do an association rule mining across all these profiles and get more associations to show how these reviewers are having a strong correlation with each of these. These 4 may be more than 4. I mean, if you find a 5th association, try to build a cluster to see whether they share the same pattern. I am just a volunteer TripAdvisor member. I gave up after finding 4.

1. It is highly unlikely that a large share of reviewers visited all 4 of these restaurants in 2 different countries, and created their accounts to review only these 4!
2. I suspect they have some incentives.
2.1. I have previously seen random employers in freelancer websites seeking freelancers to bulk review their pages in Facebook, TripAdvisor, etc..
2.2. They are probably friends of the owner. In case of Leo, it is currently #1 in Lisboa with just 136 reviews. These reviews can be from bots. Even if they are from real humans, it is not hard to find 136 "friends" for an Indian/Nepalese restaurant owner in Portugal.
3. Given that Leo is the #1 in Lisboa now, unsuspecting tourists visit there since it is a "must" now, as listed #1 by TripAdvisor. Some of them are satisfied naturally. The food is not bad - and deserve 3* - 4* anyway. So they leave a positive review. Some were a bit disappointed learning this is just yet another Indian restaurant. However, the initial bootstrap from the fake reviewers were strong enough for Leo.

As a continuous volunteer reviewer in TripAdvisor, I am disappointed to learn that TripAdvisor's approval workflow is not smart yet.

1) The ranking algorithm should be changed to
1.1) ensure a meritocracy than a democracy. In the Internet, each account is not necessarily a human. So democracy in such systems is flawed. Currently, there is no difference getting 100 5* reviews from fake accounts or bots and 100, real reviewers with proven track record.
1.2) give more importance to the number of reviews. 1000 4* reviews are probably better than 4.5* rating with 137 reviews. This should of course not harm the new businesses. So needs a smart approach. Requires further research. Currently this is the loophole how Leo managed to become the first in Lisboa!
2) The approval workflow should consist of a data mining approach to ensure reviews are not creating a pattern. As of now, I was able to find a pattern very easily among these companies. With a large set of engineers and the management interface/API, this should be simple for TripAdvisor team.
3) Fix the reporting system. Currently it is a bot. First, I report, and a canned response asked me to send an email to this address. I am not even sure whether this will be considered properly.

Leo coming to the top spot reminds me the story -

The difference is Leo actually exists as a normal Indian/Nepalese restaurant. But there are much better Nepal or Indian restaurants around, and this surely is not the #1 of Lisboa.

These first 100 reviews were given by fake reviewers to give an initial bootstrap to secure the first place, and following were social engineering. The tourists who blindly follow TripAdvisor and pay a visit here assuming this to be the best of Lisboa. Following this huge popularity, this small canteen restaurant is even unable to cope with the number of customers, making the waiting time grow large. Unsuspecting customers take all these positively. Some even fell for the mediocre Indian food, which can also be found in any other Indian/Nepal/Bengal restaurant around.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

How to Overcome an Uber Scam

Louvain-la-Neuve, by night
When I was in the US, all the Uber and Lyft drivers I met were honest and professional. This may be also because of my limited experience with Uber or Lyft.

Arrived in Brussels airport (BRU), we got to know that the Uber is not allowed near the main entrance. So after ordering the Uber, we meet him at the car park level 3. From the beginning, he started insisting that we pay in cash or by credit card. I told him that does not make sense to me as we pay by the application and this would lead to a double payment. He said, he would cancel the ride and then we can pay. He explained that this would help him avoid paying commission to Uber. He told us that when we pay 60 euro to uber, all he gets may be 50 euro. He repeated in French and his broken English that he prefers cash, throughout the journey.

We met a friend in the university, and continued to our apartment in Louvain-la-Neuve. After making him wait till we locate the apartment and unload the luggage, we finally said good bye. He smiled and asked for a 5-* rating in Uber nicely. Since everything went well (and he did not force us to get out though we did not accept his demand by payment in cash or credit card), I told him, "Of course, sure". I also got his phone number, since he explained that Uber does not work in Louvain-la-Neuve (LLN) - This is true. I verified it myself.

This is where the scam begins. After dropping us and leaving, he continued his journey (probably a return to his home or Brussels) - as we saw in Uber app. We noticed he did not end the trip though we have already got down a few minutes ago. We did not know what to do now, as this was our first experience - usually the drivers ended the journey the moment we got down. We were contemplating should we call him and ask him what is going on? We were thinking shall we cancel the trip. Our worry was, what if we cancel the trip and he does not get even any money at all (which is bad, as we indeed have arrived at the destination). That is my lack of knowledge on how Uber works.

Eventually, we decided to cancel the trip, to avoid getting charged like 200 euro, as he continues his journey, pretending to be riding us. We cancelled after a few minutes. I was still worried whether he would return and demand me pay by cash since I have now cancelled the journey. We were charged 76.14 Euro from Uber for this ride (I actually felt relieved to see that I was indeed charged!). However, I estimate this ride has cost us 15 Euro in addition to what he deserved. 

So the learning experience: after getting down from Uber, always check that the driver has stopped the journey and not continue to charge you for a journey that you never even had!

Of course, he has received a 1-star rating from me for overcharging and annoying us throughout the journey in French and broken English that we should pay in cash or card. Probably he was planning to double charge us - charge by app, as well as cash! Probably we were lucky that our lost was minimal compared to what he was planning for (for example, if we accepted to pay by cash, he may have demanded 85 euro, the regular taxi rate from BRU Brussels Airport to LLN), or even more.


We reported this to Uber the next day. Mentioned how the driver overcharged us and also insisted that we pay by cash. Uber refunded 12.39 euro in 4 days since we reported. This was an effective and quick resolution. Thanks, Uber!

The response from Uber:
My driver asked for cash payment

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 6:39:09 PM · uberX
Hi Pradeeban,

Thank you for giving me notice of this problem. Feedbacks from our users are important in order to provide a high quality service. I am sorry for the driver's attitude, such a behaviour does not meet our standards and I will have a talk with the driver.

Indeed, it appears that the trip has not been cancelled directly beyond the destination therefore I will adjust the price.

Let me know if you have any other questions or feedback.


Previous Charge - 76.14
Refunded Personal - 12.39
New Total - 63.75 Euro
P.S: Keep using Uber. Just be careful of the scam drivers in Brussels or anywhere else. Feel free to use my referral code: pradeebank2ue to get your first ride free!

If you are an Uber driver, don't assume that all the foreigners are easy prey for your scam. Of course they are new and may be naive. But does not worth it. Any rider can report these scam behaviours, and hopefully get it resolved. Pls avoid giving bad first expressions to your country when probably you are the first local he/she would meet.

P.P.S: Finally, getting settled in LLN for the second part of my PhD.