There isn’t anything obviously unusual about the 360-acre farm in Potwin, Kansas. Only a short drive from Wichita, the farm is owned by Julie Taylor. It’s a peaceful place, miles away from the nearest town.
But that’s offline. Online is a different story. According to many sites and services on the Internet, the farm is the central operating hub for many different Internet scam operations and mass email spam campaigns.
This has – over the last ten years – led to much mysterious trouble For Julie Taylor and the people who rent out her farm. Angry people have accused them of being spammers, master cyber-crooks and identity thieves. People have visited the farm, irate. Someone even left a broken toilet on the driveway. Other people have been found lurking in the farm barnyards. The FBI and local police have all visited the premises in the past, searching for Internet criminals.
Julie Taylor – nor the people who rent her farm – are Internet scammers. So why have there been so many people who think that they are? It was all a mystery, up until recently.
The answer lies with something called IP mapping. Every device that connects to the Internet is given an IP address. We discuss how IP addresses work here.
There are also many companies that provide IP mapping services. That is, to take an IP address and try to map it back to a physical location. There are many different ways you can do that, but it is not precise. These companies can sometimes track an IP address to a specific house, sometimes a town, sometimes it can only tell you what country an IP address is from. These companies are often utilised by people tracking down Internet scammers and fraudsters, to see if they can determine where various scams or spam campaigns originate from.
However, the problems for Julie Taylor’s farm started when software company – MaxMind – started providing IP mapping services for third party companies. As we said above, sometimes IP addresses can only be traced back to the country of origin. When this happens, the IP mapping company may just use a default location to represent that country as a whole, typically somewhere near the centre of the country.
And Julie Taylor’s farm just happens to be right next to the centre of the United States. In fact, it was the location pointed to by MaxMind to represent an IP address coming from the United States, when they could not go beyond that in determining a more specific location. So every time someone searched for an IP address and MaxMind could not gather any more information other than it came from the United States, MaxMind would point to Julie Taylor’s farm.
This led to many cases of mistaken identity with people assuming that the IP address they were sleuthing was attached to her farm, when it wasn’t.
Thankfully, her problems may soon be over. MaxMind have changed their default country of origin locations so they show over bodies of water, so no households will be mistakenly attached to specific IP addresses again. Hopefully.