Thursday, July 7, 2011

Google's "Search by Image" for investigative journalists....

I got an email recently:


My name is Zara and I'm a regular reader of

I'd like to thank you for the excellent information I've found on; it's always a great pleasure to read your articles
and I have subsequently become a loyal reader.

I live in Scotland where I try to increase the awareness about
renewable energy and solar panels amongst my family and friends.

It occurred to me that you might be interested in including a
guest article on about a new research that shows how
a solar table can charge mobile devices wirelessly.

For example, I could provide an article in the form of a little guide
to help your readers learn more about this research – hopefully, this
would spark a discussion about the topic at hand.

Please, take a minute to consider this proposal. Any support
would be much appreciated.

With your help, we can educate the public about the dangers of fossil
fuels, this hopefully can help increase the awareness about solar panels.

Either way, thanks for reading and keep posting your excellent
information on

I hope you have a good week.

Kind Regards,
Dr. Zara Dobson
Renewable Energy Researcher
Edinburgh, Scotland


It's certainly a nice email - very complementary and supportive. The only problem is that a computer wrote it. If you analyse it, it is just a spam 'fluffer' email with a bit of personalisation, trying to flatter the reader into publishing an article on their website.

Taking a couple of key phrases from the email and searching on Google:

"I'm a regular reader of" "thank you for the excellent information"

...quickly shows thousands of matches of the same email but with a different website name put in each time.

So why is 'Dr. Zara Dobson' doing this?

Trying the domain name in the email address ( just redirects to the Twitter account:

Now, the photo on the Twitter account is immediately suspicious. It just looks too 'stocky'. In this case Google Search by Image doesn't prove that useful as it just shows the same image being used by 'Dr Zara Dobson' on another blog directory. No smoking gun here.

However, when you look at the source url of the image file on Twitter you get:

If this is Doctor Zara Dobson, why is the image file called erin_mckenzie.jpg? Who is Erin Mckenzie?

I am now beginning to wonder if Doctor Zara Dobson really exists. She has over 60 followers on Twitter, so I would be interested to hear from any who have actually met her! I suspect they have been hoodwinked into following a non-existent person.

Searching on Google for "Zara Dobson" comes up with quite a list, and it seems even respectable online newspapers have been fooled into publishing these 'articles':

One of the most useful techniques in investigative journalism is 'follow the money'. In terms of websites and online articles like this, the key is to 'follow the links', because that is where the money comes in.

The links in the 'article' lead to a couple of personal blogs about solar panels:

but what is immediately suspicious is that even though the blogs are by different people, the design is very similar:

and then when you read the 'about' sections you see that, even though one blog is written by 'Rosalind' and one by 'Hettie', they both say "Prior to getting married, I spent over 3 years as a teacher’s assistant."

With a bit of research, you then find more...

and more...

and more!

...very similar 'personal' blogs, and you really have to wonder what is going on.

When you compare the 'About' text you get:

I write to help you get all the information to raise the awareness on energy efficiency and solar energy.

I write to help You get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependent to successful energy efficiency.

I write to help you get all information you need to design an eco friendly garden and protect birds.

I write to help you get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependency to successful energy efficiency.

I write to help you get info to make the transition from a full-time energy dependency to successful energy efficiency.


Prior to getting married, I spent over 2 years as a teacher, corporate trainer and workshop leader.

Prior to raising my family, I spent over 3 years as a teacher and workshop leader.

Prior to raising my family, I spent over ten years as a teacher, corporate trainer and workshop leader.

It is clear that all these blogs have been written by the same person, not the people in the pictures. So who are those people in the pictures? This is where Google's Search by Image proves REALLY useful. By checking the profile headshots you quickly find that they are of people with completely different names. Are these people writing under pseudonyms or have the images just been stolen off Facebook profiles and other sites?

real person and profile

real person and profile

real person and profile

So... I have tried contacting these people to check. So far I have had one response confirming that the image was stolen, so I think it is reasonable to assume that all these images were stolen.

In summary, the 5 'solar' blogs shown above are all fake, and built on criminal activity (theft, copyright infringement, misrepresentation...) and whoever is behind them has fooled respectable people and businesses into unwittingly becoming part of this illegal behaviour:

this is not Shannon Combs:

this is not Barbara Young:

So, why has someone gone to all this effort? It may be a marketer trying to built 'authority' websites with lots of links, to make money from the Google Adverts on the pages (I would have thought misrepresentation like this must be against Google's terms and conditions?). On the other hand, do the companies whose products are mentioned/promoted on these blogs know anything about it? Whether they do or not, I can't imagine it is in their interests to be associated with these websites.

And who is behind it all? I will leave that to the real investigative journalists out there!

UPDATE 20 August 2011: checking Google Search by Image again, I now find that it has found more matches for the Dr Zara Dobson portrait image, including an example which proves it is a stock image!

proof that the image of Dr Zara Dobson is a stock image

Also, the stolen portrait photos in the 'About' sections on all these fake blogs have disappeared and the text has been changed to "Hi, I’m Enrico and I write...". It appears whoever is behind all these fake blogs has become aware that their illegal activity has been exposed and they are now trying to cover their tracks.


  1. Great stuff Chris!

    It's is quite worrying what lengths some people will go to. I really think you should pass this on to some kind of legal body, police or whatever, rather than hope that an Investigative reporter will pick up on it. After the hard work you have done on this I think it needs to be brought to the public at large.

    Thank you


  2. thanks Mark - yes, I agree, but which country's jurisdiction does it fall under? The blog hosting company's country, the offending blog publisher's country, or the country of the people who's photos have been stolen, and their identities falsified?

    An interesting connection I have found is that all the people who's images have been stolen are Italian. Maybe the logic is that Italians are unlikely to visit English language websites, and therefore the stolen images are unlikely to be spotted by that person, or anyone who knows them.

  3. thanks for this post
    I was just about to post her (his?) article on our website, and was just searching for some additional photos to go with it - including a photo of Dr. Dobson...

  4. So bumb I had to share. My nephew who helps in the studio checked my PD listings. He saw the DR. Zara post- quickly- and only her post/email.!He did not scroll down!!!

    He left me a note- gee CB @ PD is taking an interest in projects like our passive solar design work. Google Dr. Z..So dummy me does not check PD but goes to google. I see pages for Dr. Z and say to myself the young PHDs must have PR firms because the shots look over posed/almost made for TV. Perhaps what the younger generation is finding they have to do. Thought no more about it and sent her one of our flyers!!! Next day I check out the full post by CB and said to myself DUMB GEORGE.They caught me even after my inner voice said some thing is not right here. GWO.////PS- my studio in Mexico- my nephew tests well at 80 % English so there was a bit of translation difficulty BUT it was primarily me using the network too fast to really think about what I was doing. I fell for every trap. SLOW DOWN.

  5. Hi AlexB

    there is an image attached to the Twitter account, but I am pretty certain this is not really a picture of Dr Dobson. All the other images on the associated blog websites are stolen from other people, and though I cannot trace this specific image, I believe it is just a stock shot of a model posing infront of solar panels:

    If anyone can trace the source of this image please let me know!

  6. Hi George

    yes, these things are designed to look very convincing - we need to really learn not to take things we read at face value, and to look out for 'red flags' like the too perfect stocky profile picture. I suspect that is why dishonest people like this are now stealing other people's 'real' photos because cheap stock photos have become so ubiquitous that people just aren't convinced by them anymore.

  7. by the way AlexB (and others who read this post) - if you write about the fact that Dr Zara Dobson's emails and articles are dishonest spam, and if you link to this page here instead, it will help other people avoid falling for them.

  8. That's an eye opening investigation. Thanks..

  9. Fair Trade, you raised your eyebrow because the spammer asked you to post totally irrelevant guest article on your blog.
    I write tech blogposts and have not been able to keep up with it due to other busy stuffs in my life. Someone came and humbly requested me to post it under the guest article and when I reviewed the article it seemed relevant to my blog. I favor new technologies and without a second thought "why not?"

    I asked her for the fee after it was published, because I saw the referral links to other commercial sites and she never showed up thereafter. I doubted her professionalism. Had she not responded me, I was making up my mind to delete the post anyway after a week.

    But, you did a good job. My blogposts rank pretty good on google and I'm going to take some time out of my busy schedule and write a debunk post on this spammer.

    I bet, her effort will be downsized by 90% after I post it up on internet. That's the lesson these spammers should learn.


  10. thanks Navin - it is great to see people responding to this! These marketers like the supposed Dr. Zara Dobson are getting very good at disguising their true agenda, and while that may just be morally questionable rather than actually illegal, in this case they have gone further, and what they are doing is illegal.

  11. I've just sent this to School of Informatics in Edinburgh. I'll send one to University of Sydney later.

    There's some interest arising relating to a Dr Zara Dobson.

    It can be seen here:

    and I've done a bit more digging and found this:

    so may I ask if this Dr Zara Dobson is a former researcher of yours?

    Is this claim below accurate?

    "About me:
    Dr Zara Dobson (Twitter: dr_zara_dobson) is a former post-doctoral researcher at the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She took a certification in electronics research and technology, and maintained her study into a Ph.D. working in the Bio-Medical and Multi media Information Technology for the University of Sydney, Australia. She is a critic for numerous leading guides in the renewable power field i.e. "Renewable Energy World". Today she's a guest blogger for renewable power internet sites, blogs and community forums."

    Many thanks

    Brian Morgan

  12. Thanks Brian - the twitter account for Dr Zara Dobson hs disappeared, which I think just confirms that Dr Zara Dobson does not exist, or if she does, someone else is impersoanting her.

  13. I have added an update as I now have proof that the image of Dr Zara Dobson, as I suspected, is a stock image!