During the last three weeks, I have spearheaded an ongoing anti-fraud campaign over at Shutterstock’s contributor forum, which has had some success, but still huge challenges lay ahead.
In this update, I’ll go through what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and how I’ve identified some of the accounts so you can keep an eye out in case one of your images end up in the wrong hands. I’ll also discuss how “free sites” are contributing to a downfall in the industry.
Tip of the iceberg
According to Shutterstock’s latest Press Release, they boast 550,000 contributors and 225 million images. These are the KPIs that shareholders/stakeholders/investors analyse when making a decision on whether to invest on Shutterstock.
However, back on Planet Earth, and upon closer inspection, just how many of those accounts are fraudulent and just how many of those images are stolen/duplicates or close adaptations? I suspect a lot.
250+ Suspicious accounts flagged
So far in the last three weeks, myself and a group of other hard-working and concerned contributors have identified 250+ suspicious accounts, mainly based in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand, Russia and Ukraine.
The “West” hasn’t been sparred with some suspicious accounts based in Italy, UK and US, Canada, Brazil also being flagged but extremely few relative to the former.
Mistakes do and will happen
There have been some mistakes on my part but fortunately they were quickly remedied. As you can appreciate, when there’s one image in 4+ different ports, it can be confusing to identify the copyright owner and tempting to flag all 4 accounts, including the potential copyright owner. I’ve set up some loose filters which I’ll discuss shortly.
However, caution is in order and further due diligence is needed. The last thing I want is to have an innocent account shut down (although I don’t have illusions of grandeur). Ultimately, the legal burden lies on SS Compliance to investigate flagged accounts, after all they have the tools and resources.
Shutterstock is taking action!
I’ve been quite critical lately of the “hand that feeds me”, but I must give them some credit as in the past week alone Jan 20-27, they’ve systematically gone down my list of which I’ve had considerable help and “wacked” 130 of the 250 “moles”. Great job, Shutterstock!
Large accounts shut = biggest reward
I call it a “wack a mole” job since it’s so easy for these guys to disappear and re-appear with different accounts, but the real success has come from closing down accounts with over 500 images.
The following are currently active suspicious accounts with over 500 images (I’ve strategically placed within a “priority list” at the SS contributor forum):
https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kostin77 (355301546 duplicated in another port as 1270126756)
https://www.shutterstock.com/g/CharoensilpPhotoData?page=10&section=1&sort=popular&search_source=base_gallery&language=en (not theft but criminal amounts of spam and blur + oof)
Update Feb 2:
Total moles identified to date: 468
Total moles wacked: 236
Summary for week ending Feb 3:
Moles wacked (by SS) from Jan 27 – Feb 2: 116
Moles pending: 105
Wack a Mole Bible by the Brutally Honest Guy
With more experience, I’ve developed an efficient strategy to flag suspicious accounts using the following filters:
1. New accounts < 6 months with only a few dozen images (thieves won’t invest a huge amount of time on this if they don’t see returns)
2. Larger ports = more likely to be legitimate, although from the list above it’s not fool-proof
3. IPs based in high-risk countries: India (!), Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Russia, China, Thailand, North African countries
4. Spelling mistakes in captions as well as “baby language” to describe the scene
5. Captions less than 5 words (but not necessarily), also if the fking idiot has a pic of the skyline of Manhattan and captions it “some city buildings”
6. Less than 10 keywords + spelling mistakes
7. One image for each iconic place. Nobody goes to pyramids or great wall of china, Mt. Everest and only captures one image (?!)
8. What shows up as similar images…if it’s the same at another port, then obviously a huge red flag. This is the easiest one to flag. *
9. More humorous one but has happened: These thieves actually start up threads on the SS forum asking for advice. Maybe on MSG forum too, who knows.
10. Also, clearly commercial shoots with identifiable models being submitted as editorials. Also, due to ignorance, some moles will place all their images that can and should be commercial as editorial using a caption.
If you’re got some mole wacking experience, please feel free to suggest some other filters.
Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels = scum
As far as I’m concerned, these “free sites” are scum for many reasons I won’t get into here. More relevant to this discussion, many of the flagged accounts include images from these above-mentioned free sites. In other words, free images were downloaded and re-sold for profit under their own accounts.
I’ve been in contact with Unsplash via Twitter who have provided me with the usual PR bullshit spin. The Brutally Honest blog is a no-bullshit zone!
I wrote at length why I think these sites are scum and contributing to making this industry increasingly unsustainable for the average contributor:
“At the moment, I look at Unsplash and others negatively since they appear to “exploit” naive contributors’ good intentions that wish to promote their work. Outside their own promotional blogs, I’ve yet to see any compelling evidence that contributors had a substantial increase in business after giving away their images for free. Just because a big brand uses one of your images and perhaps credits you (they often don’t as it’s not an obligation under the license agreement), does it really make a difference? Probably not. For example, someone who uses an iPhone to shoot an image that is used by Apple for free…I mean, a top 3 richest company in the world just got an image for free when they would have otherwise licensed it from someone else for real world money. How can someone honestly think this is positive unless they’re like 13 years old and want to brag to their high school friends and impress the girls?
This is much worse than a restaurant in the US paying a waitress below minimum wage and expecting customers to cover her wage with tips (but this is much more common). We’re heading towards an era of DIGITAL SLAVERY with WILLING slaves.
Then there are other issues related to unreleased work and the agencies passing on the risk to the naive photographer. In other words, a brand/person sues Unsplash and Unsplash sues the contributor. The whole thing is a ticking legal time-bomb. 1 time in 5,000 nothing will happen but why take an unnecessary risk for questionable gain? “
This is a huge task and I would like to thank others that are helping me flag these accounts. As SS have 550,000 accounts, my goal is to reach 5,500 suspicious accounts to make a case that 1% of accounts on SS are likely fraudulent. This is a reasonable and realistic goal of which I’ve only achieved 5% (250).
This problem is of course not exclusive to SS and I trust that decision-makers at other microstock agencies will read this and take action within their own camps. Get in touch and I may be able to offer some more insights on how to combat this issue.
I’ll be back with an update soon, likely after 1,000 accounts flagged and some 500 officially closed.
To finish off I’ll leave you with the pic of a mute horse, brought to you by “artist”, Rockkss, based in Canada – https://www.shutterstock.com/g/Rockkss?sort=newest.
I’ve also ran out of things to say so…until next time!
Alex is the official Shutterstock wackamoler since late 2018. Others describes him as diligent, professional and thorough.
So far he has contributed to 120 fraudulent accounts being suspended with 1000s more to come! They are burning effigies of him in India…