Columbia senior’s blog breaks Belkin scandal

By Kaiti Deerberg

After stumbling upon some suspicious posts on an Amazon.com sister website and taking the information to his blog, a Columbia student found himself in the middle of a scandal and named The New York Times’ “Internet Hero of the Week.”

Arlen Parsa, a senior film major, was browsing the Internet when he stumbled upon a posting that did not sit well with his ethics. The posting called for fake reviews for tech products in exchange for cash. After looking into the post, he found some more disturbing information. So he blogged his findings and days later an international corporation was reeling in scandal.

Parsa was browsing Mechanical Turk (MTurk.com), a website where users can make extra cash performing “human intelligence tasks,” or HITS, on a Friday evening. Parsa was introduced to the website by his girlfriend and had been using it to make a little extra cash to supplement his pay as a student tutor in the Writing Center. He found a posting on MTurk.com that offered money to users for writing good customer reviews for Belkin Electronic products such as iPod FM adapters and computer routers on sites like Amazon.com.

The post also asked that any bad reviews found on sites for the product be marked as “not helpful” by willing participants. The post also stated that users did not actually have to test the product before writing reviews.

“I immediately thought of my mother,” Parsa said. “She really depends on customer reviews when she is shopping online, and I just thought that this isn’t right.”

Parsa’s background in documentary films kicked into gear as he began to research the posting to find out who was behind it.

The poster used his real name, and after searching for the suspect’s name, Michael Bayard, Parsa found he was a business development representative for Belkin.

“I documented everything I found at that point,” Parsa said. “I took screenshots of the post and saved everything so I would have proof of what I had found.”

So he did the only thing he could do-he blogged about it. Parsa usually uses his site to voice his opinion on politics, but instead he posted his documentation and his thoughts on Belkin’s unethical sales tactics.

To his surprise, the story was linked to hundreds of other blogs within days, and the scandal exploded on the Internet.

“I usually get around a few hundred hits on my blog in a day,” Parsa said. “After the story broke, I was getting 80,000 hits just for that story.”

Media picked up the story, and Parsa was featured on sites like E-CommerceTimes.com and TechWorldNews.com. Eventually the story was picked up by The Associated Press.

Throughout the ordeal Parsa was in contact with Belkin representatives discussing the issue.

“To their credit, they have been really responsive and willing to answer my questions,” Parsa said.

However, some bloggers are still buzzing about Belkin’s action, or lack thereof.

Bayard was not immediately fired and Parsa just recently heard rumors the rep had been suspended, but the news has not been confirmed.

Melody Chalaban, Belkin’s public relations manager, said all postings and reviews in question have been removed from Mechanical Turk, Amazon and other sites.

“All I can say is appropriate action has been taken,” Chalaban said when asked if Baynard or other employees were fired after the incident.

Belkin is also investigating further to ensure that Bayard’s posts were isolated incidents.

Laura Heller, an adjunct journalism faculty member, has been writing in the tech blog world for years. She writes for Dwell.com and covers technology for Traditional Home Magazine.

“This is certainly not the first time we’ve found reps paying people for false reviews,” Heller said. “A general consumer who takes action against fraud like this should be applauded.”

Heller said in the research she has seen, consumers are more responsive to customer reviews because people find them more personal and relatable. But online shoppers should always be wary of product information they find on the Internet.

Parsa now feels the same but is basking in some new found fame. New York Times columnist David Pogue dubbed Parsa the “Internet Hero of the Week” on Jan. 19.

“I’ve really gotten a kick out of this,” Parsa said. “The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it is so democratizing. I am just this 21-year-old student at Columbia who posted something he found on his blog, and a few days later a Fortune 500 company CEO is on his knees begging for forgiveness.”

Parsa said after the story broke, sources were crawling out of the woodwork to weigh in on Belkin’s sub-par business ethics. The investigation is ongoing, and Parsa is in contact with anonymous Belkin employees.

“I’m in contact with people who know the way Belkin operates,” Parsa said. “They’ve been feeding me new information that I am not able to publish just yet.”

Parsa said he plans to keep blogging and work his way into the documentary film business after graduation.

Parsa laughed at the idea of his new Internet fame leading him to big opportunities in the future.

“That would be nice, but I don’t know if I will really benefit from this personally,” Parsa said. “My reward is seeing this wrong being righted.”

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