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Met someone online? You could be chatting to a bot

What's a chat bot, and where are they?

Chat bots are all over the internet. They're on Twitter, Facebook, OkCupid, Tinder; any site where there's an instant chat function, you'll find hundreds of robots pretending to be real people. Modern chat bots are more convincing than the previous incarnations you might have spotted on MSN, and are also more malicious.

Not so clever bots, often found on Twitter

Twitter estimates that there are around 20 million automated users on the site. Luckily these bots are pretty harmless, and are mainly used on Twitter to retweet and like other content (particularly content aligned with a political party or cause). They might also post their own tweets, which will then be shared and liked by the other bots, and so on. Twitter is a great platform for bots because the character limit stops them from getting too confused.

If you do enter into a conversation with one of these bots you'll probably have a fairly circular discussion. You might also be accosted by a number of other bots coming to its rescue. But these sorts of bots aren't phishing for your card details; they're just a bit of a nuisance. 

Fairly clever bots, often found on Instagram/Facebook

Most bots on these social media sites are relatively harmless too. They do the bidding of whoever's built them or paid for them, liking pictures and following accounts, and probably aren't that interested in chatting to you. Their goal is to drum up support for a person, or a page.

However, the bots that are interested in chatting are a little more forward. They'll usually try to entice users with a sexually explicit photograph or message, and can also form longer replies (although they may still sound scripted). Their aim is to get as much money out of you as possible, through blackmail or a phishing scam.

Very clever bots, often found on Tinder/OkCupid/Any dating site

These bots are a little bit wiser than their social media counterparts, in that they will respond to your replies like a real person. A lot of them work by using the if-then model; finding something in your reply and asking a follow up question, and then just changing the subject if they get confused.

Bots on dating sites will also be using sexually explicit photographs or messages to grab users attention (although they've also been used to campaign for your vote before a general election). Their motivation is also financial, and they've got a few ways of convincing you to part with your cash.

So, am I talking to a chat bot?

Here are some handy tips to help you work out whether you're chatting to a bot, or not.

They're always online
Real people aren't online constantly, ready to reply at a moment's notice. If the response times from someone are almost immediate or run like clockwork, it's probably because the replies are already written.

'Check out this video!'
If you're chatting to a bot on a dating site or social media, one of the things it might try to do is get you to click a link. This is definitely laden with malware (or will take you to a site laden with malware) and is designed to collect your information, which will then be sold to an unscrupulous individual. Avoid clicking links or receiving files from users that you don't know and trust.

'I bet you'd love this product/service!'
Unless it develops organically from your conversation, be suspicious of anyone who quickly or randomly brings up something they think you'd like to buy. It's an odd business proposal at best, and a way to get your card details at worst.

'I'd love to send you a gift/money!'
There is no reason for someone you've started chatting to online to ask for your personal details; particularly your bank details. If someone does want to send you money, ask them to use PayPal. They'll probably change their mind pretty quickly.

'Lets swap photos, or go on webcam!'
This tends to come up on dating sites quickly after you start chatting, with the aim being to get you off the service you're using and into a situation where you can be more easily exploited. Once the bots have done their work, you'll likely be blackmailed by whoever's behind it.

If they wait politely for you to reply
Bots generally won't interrupt you or ask additional questions while you're replying. They'll send you message, wait very patiently while you're replying to it, and only once you have done will they send you another. 

Short, simple replies
Bots are pretty good at picking something out of your reply and following it up with a short reply of their own. But they're less proficient at longer replies, and they tend to struggle with messages beyond a couple of sentences. Some bots will claim that English isn't their first language to make this seem a little less suspicious.

I'm chatting to a bot - what should I do?

If you think you've caught a bot, report it to the website or app you're using. If you've sent it any personal information or clicked a link, make sure you run a malware scan on your computer and then change the details of any accounts that could be compromised. If you're worried about the amount of information you have disclosed, consider reporting the interaction to your bank or the police.

Or if you're not at risk and you want a laugh, try being sarcastic. Bots will get very confused.

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