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Dishonest Digital Engagement and Emails (Not) With @Zenefits’ Parker Conrad

By now we’ve all heard about the problems over at Zenefits.  Reports of a rambunctious culture, office partying, and stairwell sexcapades is especially embarrassing for a company like Zenefits, which operates in the world of employee benefits and human resources. Perhaps more troubling are the allegations it quickly skated its sales reps through state-mandated insurance training courses. While those accusations about Zenefits may have come as a shock to some, it wasn’t a surprise to us after being on the receiving end of some silly and blatantly obvious dishonest digital engagement.

Back in February 2015, I received a solicitation email from Zenefits.  Like all companies, we have potential vendors reach out to us all the time, and we do our own fair share of email marketing outreach.  What was unique about this email, however, was that Parker Conrad, the founder and CEO himself, wanted to personally speak with me.

Parker 1

Wow, the Parker Conrad!  Zenefits is the hottest startup in Silicon Valley, recently valued at over $500 million, and the founder himself is taking time out of his busy day to request a personal call with me or someone at ModSquad.

Not so fast.  Our CEO, Amy Pritchard, had earlier received a very similar email, and we weren’t buying that Parker Conrad had any intention of getting on a sales call.  Nevertheless, we were genuinely interested in the product.  So we played along and replied that sure, we’ll speak with “you.”

Parker 2

At that point, we expected to get an email from a Zenefits sales rep, introducing himself or herself and saying he or she was filling in for a very busy Parker Conrad.  That would have been annoying, but expected.  Instead, we got a reply email from the counterfeit “Parker Conrad” saying, “I was hoping to connect you with one of my advisors — would you be open to that instead?”  We got the double down and bait and switch!

Parker 3

Amy joined in and we continued to have some fun with the proxy Parker Conrad, exchanging no less than four more sets of emails, subtly needling the imposter for pretending to be the boss.  We even sent a copy of the emails to what we hoped was Parker Conrad’s real email address because we couldn’t fathom the CEO would actually condone this dishonesty.

Parker 4

Undeterred, faux Parker claimed every time to be the real deal, toiling away on his keyboard, but that he was just too darn busy for a call or a face-to-face.  Again, could we just speak with a (possibly unlicensed) sales representative???

Parker 5

Eventually the joke got old, we reached a stalemate, and we parted ways.  In the end, the dishonest digital engagement by Zenefits made it impossible for us to outsource an important human resources function to them, and we never did get that demo.  Of course, Zenefits should have known better than to try and pull one over on a digital engagement company like ModSquad.  Our community managers and forum moderators are constantly fighting the good fight to keep our clients’ forums clear of sock puppets, astroturfers, spambots, ban evaders, and other dishonest digital engagers.

Most of our encounters with sock puppets – online fake identities – are when they try to post links to commercial spam like pornography, pirated movies, and live events.  These nefarious clickbait companies have very elaborate scripts, or spambots, that can quickly auto-generate hundreds of threads of spam on unknowing forums.  Things can get out of control on the forum in a flash if moderators aren’t there to put a stop to it.  In addition to spam, sock puppets may try to circumvent a ban or a suspension we imposed for bad behavior, or to advance a political agenda.  All of which can significantly detract from the regular users’ forum experience.

In our fights against this dishonest digital engagement, we often use our partners’ language filters to detect and reject the spam before it’s ever posted.  Or we may require new members to verify their legitimacy with a CAPTCHA or an email confirmation, to serve a probationary period, or be limited in the number of threads they can post to prevent flooding.  When we suspect new accounts may have circumvented the filter, we match up the IP addresses with those on our ban list to weed out the scoundrels.  And of course, we spend a lot of time eyeballing the boards, looking out for any behavior that violates the community’s terms of service.

Rest assured, sock puppets of the world, if and when you try to infiltrate or spam a forum moderated by ModSquad, you will be stopped.  It’s what we do!  As for Zenefits, we are pleased to hear it has made a new commitment to best-in-class corporate governance, compliance, and accountability.  And to Parker Conrad, even though you aren’t with Zenefits anymore, know that Amy still does want to grab that coffee with you.  The real you!

Mike Pinkerton

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