News Security awareness

Vanity Awards – a threat to both wallet and dignity

In recent years, pitches for paid honors – so-called Vanity Awards – have become increasingly common. Nimblr describes the phenomenon and its common course, and looks at the possible security risks associated with these “borrowed feathers”. Finally, a proposal is made for a less loaded terminological alternative: Pyrrhic Prizes.

A prize, but at what price?

Many and deep are the pitfalls we risk falling into when our quest for attention and recognition isn’t governed by better judgment. A good example of this is Vanity Awards, where companies are tempted to accept vaguely described nominations or to nominate themselves for “prestigious awards” only to find that the prizes are priced, i.e., are available for a fee. The companies behind these charlatanries are usually careful to be on the right side of the law and can prosper from the delusions of their unsuspecting victims. Nimblr often receives this type of offer and can therefore describe the typical Vanity Award process.

The usual course of events

During November and December 2022, Nimblr receives more than half a dozen emails from a company – let’s call it Corporate Foresight – whose stated agenda is “to acknowledge and celebrate businesses all over the world who strive – every day- to be better than they were”. The introductory message is well crafted and may, at first glance, seem trustworthy and reputable. We are informed that “Nimblr Ab has been identified as a potential nominee within the Security Awards 2023” and are, via two links, given the option to either accept or decline this potential nomination. Furthermore, we are told that “There is no mandatory cost involved if you choose to accept this nomination, or if you go on to be successful. If a company is successful, we do offer packages to make the most of the achievement, but these are completely optional, and we always offer a complimentary package to our awardees.” So far so good, right? The company is registered and has an address, phone number, and a well-designed website. The email also includes a photograph of the staff, five smiling women who on the surface – much like the Spice Girls – exemplify five different archetypes or styles. We even get to know their first names/nicknames; short, easy-to-pronounce, ‘ordinary’ names.

Upon closer inspection…

In the Security Awareness field, you learn early on that what is left unsaid is often more informative than what is said. We are not told on what grounds this potential nomination rests; what we have achieved? Nor is anything said about who or which people nominated us. Moreover, a discursive examination of the message reveals some classic cons:

  1. We are chosen/special/outstanding
  2. A (possible) reward awaits, in the short and long term
  3. We need to act swiftly

In addition to these warning signs, the message – photograph included – appears a little too rigged: a pluralistic catch-all whose differentiated meshes are meant to entangle a wide spectrum of would-be prey. In Nimblr, we know that the best way to reject a suspicious online offer is to ignore it, in order both to negate the risk of interacting with unsafe links and to examine the counterparty’s behavior in the absence of a response. We thus let the message from Corporate Foresight go unanswered. Immediately, an intense spamming started, with the urgency message coming more and more to the fore, while Nimblr went from “potentially nominated” to “nominated” without comment. Needless to say, we did not reply to any of these messages either.

Then what happens?

However, there are companies that – by mistake or pure curiosity – have accepted this type of nomination. From their experience, we learn that nominations always lead to wins and that a win sometimes means some form of free exposure, for example via a short interview in the awarding company’s own online magazine. In addition, there are offers of so-called prize packages, with plaques, trophies, and the like, at a cost ranging from 150 to over 5000 €. The free interviews seem to bring minimal positive returns at best. A more likely consequence of Vanity Awards is a continued and intensified spam bombardment with similar offers.

More than money at stake

It’s easy to view Vanity Awards as a nuisance rather than as a real threat, since interactions with their spam messages, links, and offers are voluntary, with no explicit purchase requirements. It is therefore neither phishing nor pure fraud. The operations and practices are not illegal but can be justifiably classified as dishonest, and in this context, there is more than just money at stake. As already mentioned, participation often opens the floodgates to a torrent of similar “offers”, which poses an increased security risk. In addition, these spam messages contain a variety of links, the legitimacy of which can and should be questioned. For a Security Awareness company like Nimblr, the negative exposure that a Vanity Award brings can be devastating, as active participation demonstrates a lack of both security and awareness.

“If we are victorious once more, we shall be utterly ruined”

However, it is understandable that companies allow themselves to be duped in this way. The global business world is a jungle, and neither maps nor compasses offer protection from the predators that lurk in the dark. It is essential to be able to discuss Vanity Awards and other types of scams in a clear and non-judgmental way, without ridiculing those who have allowed themselves to be scammed. This will help spread information about the phenomenon and make companies more vigilant and resilient. In this spirit, Nimblr would like to propose a terminological shift, replacing the stigmatizing term Vanity Awards with the more neutral term Pyrrhic Awards, so named after King Pyrrhus who, following a costly victory over the Romans at the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC, is said to have uttered the phrase “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined”. Unlike King Pyrrhus, you, as an entrepreneur – thankfully – are not fighting a resourceful Roman Empire, but in this case, the battle is between reason and vanity. If you represent and/or have built a brand and a business idea that you believe in and are proud of, it’s better to focus on well-deserved and genuine awards, and if you can’t wait for those, you can always invest in a “world’s best boss” mug for yourself. These are both cheaper and more useful than Pyrrhic awards.