Solar Home Inc controls over 6000 websites, cybersquats on other companies’ trademarks, posts hundreds of cut-and-paste comments on news, technology, and investing sites, and posts those comments using at least eight separate usernames.
Click here to see all the posts in this series.
On my first Renewable Journal post, a commenter by the name of Ray Boggs dropped a list of reasons not to go with a solar energy lease like the one I have with SolarCity. I briefly looked into his points and found that some were valid while others were not. In addition, I discovered that Boggs is the founder of Solar Home Inc, a Victorville California solar system reseller. This makes SolarCity and other solar lease providers Boggs’ competitors. So I responded in the comment thread, pointed out that Boggs was a biased commenter, and left it at that.
On July 16, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story about solar leases and how they might not be all they’re cracked up to be, and when I glanced at the comments on NPR’s website, I noticed that the very same Ray Boggs had posted another comment attacking solar leases. But the fact that his comment at NPR was nearly identical to the comment he posted at S&R got me wondering if Boggs was more than just a businessman trying to undercut his competition. It got me wondering whether or not Boggs was essentially a spammer. So I did some digging.
What I discovered is that there are hundreds of nearly identical comments posted on solar articles and websites going back to September 2010. I discovered nine distinct usernames and/or individuals responsible for posting those comments, usually without acknowledging their connection to Solar Home. And I discovered a network of literally thousands of nearly identical websites controlled by Solar Home that serve the dual purpose of attacking solar leasing companies while also promoting Solar Home’s products.
Essentially, I discovered that Solar Home Inc uses comment spam, domain speculation and cybersquatting, and sockpuppetry to support their business. Since I find such tactics offensive, I’ve chosen to post my findings as a series, starting with Solar Home’s four-year history of comment spamming.
Unless you run a blog or some other similar website that allows comments, you may be unfamiliar with the term “comment spam.” It is essentially unsolicited commercial comments, usually containing links to websites where visitors are either asked to purchase items, asked about their bank accounts, or infected with malware. As someone who has run maintained websites off and on for nearly 20 years, I can fairly claim that comment spam is a never-ending plague.
While most modern content management systems (like WordPress, Blogger, et al) can automatically filter using keywords and structures common to automated spam generators, filtering out comment spam gets harder when real people are generating it. Automated spam generators create predictable patterns in their comment spam and automated filters detect those patterns relatively easily. Standard filters don’t do nearly as well when the spam is generated by a real person because real people can customize their comment spam, pretend to be something they’re not, and engage in conversations, all the while steering people toward their employer’s interests or away from their employer’s competitors.
This is the approach that Solar Home has followed with their comment spam. My analysis of dozens of comments indicates that there are at least two individuals, perhaps more, who have used at least nine different usernames in an attempt to steer people away from leasing solar panels and toward buying solar panels, ideally from one of any number of companies and affiliates of Solar Home Inc. And they’ve been posting their comment spam since September 2010.
Ray Boggs, founder and CEO of Solar Home Inc, is the first Solar Home employee who regularly posts comment spam on solar-related news articles and blogs. As I mentioned previously, Boggs came to my attention via a comment he posted at S&R and it was a nearly identical comment of his at NPR instigated my investigation into his company’s online presence. In my investigation, I found nearly identical comments at tech websites such as CleanTechnica, Gigaom, and multiple examples at Renewable Energy World. I found that Boggs had done the same at blogs such as The Energy Collective, Five Towns at Patch.com, and the blog for the Rocky Mountain Institute. And I found even more comments in news articles from the Daily Energy Report, the East Valley Tribune, AZCentral.com, Ahwatukee Foothills News, and the Victorville Daily Press.
Another employee of Solar Home Inc has also been posting comments widely on news sites, blogs, solar and tech sites, and even investing sites. Ron Winton, identified by Boggs as an employee of Solar Home in a comment at Watchdog.org, has been posting comments that are nearly identical to Boggs’ own, but only rarely do both post comments on the same article. In fact, besides the Watchdog.org post, I’ve only found one example where Winton and Boggs both posted in the same comment thread – at Gigaom. Other tech sites where Winton has posted comments that are essentially identical to either Boggs’ comments or to content from Solar Home websites include PV-TECH.org and Clean Technica. Winton has posted more extensively on blogs than Boggs has, with comments at blogs at the Phoenix NewTimes, Valuewalk, Forbes, PlanetSave, the Better Business Bureau, Living Green Magazine, and the New Jersey Newsroom. News sites where Winton has commented include Tulsa World, the Prescott Valley Tribune, The Buffalo News, and Bloomberg. In addition, Winton has also posted comments that disparage solar leasing companies and/or promote Solar Home’s products at investing sites Trefis, Barron’s, and Motley Fool (as Ronwiserinvestor).
There are other usernames around the Web that also attack solar leasing companies, promote Solar Home’s products, or promote the products of companies that Solar Home sells. For example, someone posting as “Wiserinvestor” has posted comments that are identical to posts by Winton at Motley Fool, Reuters, and Seeking Alpha. Someone with the username “solarpro” has posted comments that are nearly identical to those of Boggs and Winton at the Lompoc Record, Smartplanet.com, KCET, and First Tuesday Journal. And someone else with the username “solareye” posted comments that are nearly identical to Winton’s with respect to microinverters at Smartplanet.com.
Over the course of my investigation into Solar Home’s comment spam, I discovered that most of the comments written by Boggs and Winton used information that was copied and pasted, often verbatim, from websites controlled by Solar Home. This suggested an alternative method to determine how many comment spam were posted by Solar Home employees – conducting internet searches using phrases common to much of the comment spam. One phrase I used was “Most if not all $0 down solar leases include an annual payment escalator,” without the quotation marks. When I searched that phrase I found that 258 of the top 300 results (86%) were related to Solar Home. Of those 258 results, 38 were comment spam by Boggs, Winton, and others while the remaining 220 results were websites associated with Solar Home. In addition, nearly all the comment spam showed up in the first 100 results while the bulk of the unrelated websites were in the last 50 results.
Boggs, Winton, and an unknown number of other employees of Solar Home Inc have repeatedly commented on news articles and blogs posts related to solar leasing. In the process, they have repeatedly made claims that would benefit Solar Home and/or damage Solar Home’s competitors, usually without acknowledging that they have a vested interest in commenting as they do. Given how widely and how often they do this, there is no question that Boggs, Winton, and Solar Home Inc. qualify as comment spammers.
Tomorrow: Solar Home’s domain speculation and cybersquatting.