Digital Snake Oil: The Emergence of Online Stuttering Scams and Slams

meredith.jpeg About the presenter: Grant Meredith is a lecturer in multimedia and games design within the School of Science, Information Technology & Engineering at the University of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. He has achieved bachelor degrees in both Computing and IT and is currently working through PhD research looking at the experiences of stuttering students within the Australian higher education system. Grant is also an active and innovative developer and researcher within virtual worlds and is the programme leader for the Technologies for Empowering People for Participation in Society (TEPPS) Programme ( Grant enjoys the challenge of lecturing and communicating with a stutter.
gunn.jpeg About the presenter: Anthony Gunn is a psychologist specialising in treating anxiety. He is an internationally published author of six books on the topic of anxiety and phobias. He became a psychologist to treat his own phobia of medical procedures after he underwent an emergency operation without anesthetic for a collapsed lung and was hospitalised for six weeks while on a student exchange program in Central America's Honduras. Anthony is currently doing a PhD at The University of Sydney, where is he developing an on-line Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program to treat the social anxiety of adolescents who stutter.

Digital snake oil: The emergence of online stuttering scams and shams

by Grant Meredith and Anthony Gunn
from Australia

"Roll up, roll up! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls to witness the amazing, the outstanding, the speech defying, Dr. Grant's and Professor Tony's travelling medicine show. Direct from a successful tour of Kookamunga and Russia with over 2,000 unfortunates cured! We offer you a 3 day, 100% guaranteed elimination of your stuttering, your stammering and even your carbuncles for a once only fee of $7000. Yes, you heard me correct folks, for only $7000 we will cure, eliminate, subdue and be gone your misguided tongue onto the path of fluency forever more. Break those bad habits and the faults of your supportive parents. After years of unproven research and anonymous feedback we can with all assurance fix your bent tongue and your nervous voice box. Yes ladies and gentleman you heard me correctly, all this and more for only 3 days of your time and $7000 from your pocket. A small investment for a fluent future. We will even throw in a bottle of our famous hair restoring tonic free of charge!"

Sounds too good to be true? Well it is.

The embracement of the World Wide Web (WWW) has enabled people the world over to access via the Internet a multitude of services and websites for now over twenty years. The WWW enables people to easily access the enormous, ever expanding entity known as the Internet. The Internet now contains the greatest amount of user provided information that humanity has ever freely encountered and it is constantly changing, growing and evolving. Gone are the days when your knowledge was restricted to what you had learnt at school, seen on television, read at your local library, learnt from your parents and found in the contents of your dated prized family encyclopedia collection. Over such a short amount of time we have been exposed to the collective shared knowledge of all humanity via the simple press of a few buttons. The WWW enables people the world over to connect to and add to this mass of knowledge stored, discussed and shared, right or wrong, on a global scale. No longer do the barriers of geography, language or socio-economic status exist in terms of access to such a vast knowledge repository. For the person who stutters (PWS) this has meant easy online access to a large range of treatment options, software applications, support forums and view-point blogs. Suddenly limited, closed and lonely worlds have been opened up to a vast digital universe full of hope and promise. But with great power, comes great responsibility. For a PWS searching through the WWW in terms of help, guidance, support and information what may be found is not as positive or as truthful as it seems. For the WWW is an easy route for scammers and opportunists to hook and reel in the gullible and desperate looking for treatment options such as for stuttering.

The freedom of speech that the WWW promises and advocates is also one of the major dangers that the PWS faces when seeking help and advice. In reality anybody, in any country with no qualifications at all can easily set up a website advertising a new, exciting and too good to be true "cure" for stuttering. Websites can now be built with ease via the use of online builders and templates without the creator having to have any high degree of I.T. knowledge. Hosting for these websites can range in price from being free with perhaps adverts and other restrictions, through to a very minimal monthly fee. Often these sites will offer a stuttering cure (or implied e.g. "elimination") in a short space of time for a once off fee. The authors usually have no academic backing in the area of speech pathology or proven successful outcomes for their techniques and show videos of people guaranteed to have been cured using their techniques. All positive, all too good to be true and all so enticing for a desperate PWS. Some sites simply offer downloadable e-books and guides, all with the same guarantees as discussed earlier and often simply replicating content from other websites. Forums and blogs offer avenues to spread and support false, unproven and unsubstantiated views, opinions and theories. All of which can easily spread, be accepted as truth and bolster the many myths surrounding stuttering cause and treatment at the expense of the seeking PWS.

The aim of this paper is too open the eyes of people who stutter to the dangers that they are exposed to via the unregulated freedoms of the Internet. The simple psychology behind scam stuttering cure sites will be revealed and a basic checklist of what to avoid when visiting these sites will be developed. We freely admit that a fight to close these sites down is almost impossible to win across an international global digital scale, so the fight must be fought and won through education and awareness of how these sites operate. People who stutter must be made aware of what to look for when visiting treatment and support sites in order to identify and expose the opportunistic, fraudulent and the unsupported.

Let's start the fight through education and awareness by looking at three common psychological ploys or steps that scammers use to sell online stuttering cures. The first step is getting your attention by offering a miracle cure that seems too good to be true. At times this may be advertised quite blatantly as a 100% cure or elimination of stuttering and usually is guaranteed over a very short space of time. This ploy feeds on the element of PWS's sense of hope. If every speech therapist you've ever been to has said to you that there's no known cure for stuttering, then when a person comes along and disputes this, the 'hope' button in your brain becomes activated. The website's amazing claim may have gotten your attention and attracted you by using the bait of hope, but they'll need to do more than that for you to part with your hard earned cash.

This brings us to step two: Social proof. This is a term psychologists use to explain a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others reflect correct behavior for a given situation. If everyone else is paying to get their stuttering cured by this person then you'd better do the same. Why are we so vulnerable to social proof? We humans are a herd animal who survived over thousands of years by watching each other. Our early ancestors would pay close attention to each other in an attempt to avoid danger. Whether noticing a neighbour's look of horror at detecting an approaching sabre tooth tiger or seeing the affect eating red berries had on the tribe leader's son, we learn quickly to put a lot of trust in watching others. If the website has written testimonies, photos of smiling people who have been cured, or best of all, video footage of the person being cured (both before and after), then our primitive brains do backflips in sheer excitement. After all, these tribe members are smiling so the cure must be true. Social proof? Check! Now you're reaching for your credit card, but the deal isn't closed yet. Who is this guru that will be both curing you and taking your credit card details?

Step 3: Introduce the Guru. It's absolutely vital that this healer, and only this healer, professes to have the cure. This means using a measurable technique that can be easily replicated by other therapists is definitely out. Only the Guru holds the secret to curing you once and for all. This is also why the rest of the stuttering research world has thought there was no known cure -- they'd never met the Guru! The Gurus will post amazing claims on their website about their unique gift to be able to cure the incurable. Ideally they'll have been trained in a forgotten technique by a wise old master who has been hidden away from the world in a remote location. That makes the information that the Guru holds rare! If anything were to happen to the Guru, such as them being booked out and not taking any more customers, then there goes your hope of ever being cured.

After Step 3, it's all down hill from here. You're punching in your credit card details at the speed of light. No-one is going to steal your spot with the Guru. Sadly you go through the complete treatment, but still no change. For a short period you speak very fluently within the safe confines of your home and in front of your family but once outside in the larger world you still stutter. What went wrong? If the Guru does reply to your emails then they'll likely explain that your energy wasn't right for change or perhaps you were not ready in your heart to stop stuttering. The fault will always be yours and not the guru's. You now need to go away and work out what's blocking your energy that's preventing the treatment from working and why in your soul you were not ready to be fluent. Good news! There's an on-line course that can fix that too, and they accept credit cards.

Here's a short checklist you can use when looking at internet sites that offer amazing cures to assist you to make an informed judgment call. Does the internet site:

  1. Get your attention by offering a cure that seems too good to be true. Remember that these sites are usually very smart in their sales techniques and state cure or imply by grand statements of guarantees and elimination. In reality, at this point in time there is no proven cure for stuttering.
  2. Establish social proof through testimonies, photos and videos of people who've been successfully cured. These are usually people who have no connection with well known stuttering organizations or treatment methods. Sometimes they are perhaps from a far away country making it very hard to chase up true evidence and records of success. These cured people have usually tried every other avenue of assistance without any success and the advertised cure has worked for them. What a perfect trap to attract the PWS into the cured herd.
  3. Have a Guru who has a unique technique that only they can use and that they have developed themselves through years of research. You should search Google scholar to see if any of these gurus have any peer reviewed and accepted studies backing up their techniques. Contact major national stuttering organizations within your country to seek their knowledge about the guru and sold techniques. Accepted gurus and techniques are commonly known amongst support organizations and academic circles. But these gurus do not offer cure. Just keep in your mind also that if the technique does not work for you then the guru will blame you for failing them.
  4. Advertise a time bracket in which your stuttering will be cured? No proven and established treatment method will ever guarantee a time span of effective treatment. All PWS are different and treatment plans will not be capped. These short time spans help lure the desperate PWS who has perhaps stuttered for most of their life.
  5. Offer a technique plan of e-books and guides only. If only it was so simple to cure stuttering. Instead of visiting a speech pathologist you would only need to visit a library. This is a common lure that can rake in a lot of money in a short space of time. A rather inexpensive cure that can be published once and electronically shared to the gullible with ease.

In conclusion we would like to wrap up by pleading with the person who stutters not to be lured into scam websites by grand promises of a quick cure. Before handing over your hard earned cash do some homework about the supposed cure beyond their website. Look to stuttering research and support organizations for guidance. If a 100% cure or elimination of stuttering existed then the gurus proposing it would be world famous, incredibly wealthy, be supported by stuttering organizations worldwide and be in the running for a Nobel prize of some form. They would not have to resort to a poorly designed website offering cheap psychology in the attempt to lure in clients. Added to that there would be no need for this paper as stuttering would be like smallpox, totally eliminated from the world.