One woman in the US state of Kansas has been accused of spamming, scamming and fraud hundreds of times.
Joyce Taylor says she gets regular visits from the FBI, tax collectors and angry vigilantes.
Someone has even left a broken toilet on the driveway of her family farm. But it’s all a case of mistaken identity.
Joyce, or specifically her property, is targeted because of a quirk in the way the internet converts digital addresses to a physical point on a map.
The farm is in the heart of rural Kansas, close to the centre of the US – and that’s important. We’ll explain why later.
Joyce says the first time she was accused of causing trouble online was in 2011.
“It was a man who was furious because his business internet was overwhelmed with emails. His customers couldn’t use their email. He said it was the fault of the address at the farm,” she told Fusion.
A quick online search for the farm’s address brings up pages of forum posts reporting the “scam farm”.
These reports accuse someone at the address of things like selling cars that don’t exist and sending huge amounts of spam emails.
Lots of them encourage locals to report the address to local police.
The local sheriff Kelly Herzet says he has had to put up a sign warning people to stay away from the house and call him instead.
“Our deputies have been told this is an ongoing issue and the people who live there are nice,” he says.
“That poor woman has been harassed for years.”
Why does the internet think this farm is full of scammers?
Every internet connection requires an IP (Internet Protocol) address. It might look something like this: 188.8.131.52
Often this address is assigned by the company you buy your internet from – the Internet Service Provider (ISP), so they will always know which address matches up with each connection.
Websites keep a record of the IP addresses that have visited them.
Law enforcement such as police or the FBI can request this information, allowing them to match up – for example – a Facebook or Gmail account with an IP address.
There are companies that specialise in matching these IP addresses with real-world locations. Some of these databases are searchable online for free.
Unfortunately for Joyce Taylor if you’re up to no good it’s in your interest to hide your location, and IP mapping is not an exact science at the best of times.
If a company can’t tell you exactly where an IP address is from but does know which country it’ll often report it as in the centre of that country.
One of the databases is kept by a company called MaxMind.
When the firm was picking its default point in the US it happened to pick Joyce Taylor’s farm.
Thomas Mather, who started MaxMind, says the database was never meant to be exact.
“We have always advertised the database as determining the location down to a city or zip code level. To my knowledge, we have never claimed that our database could be used to locate a household.”
He says MaxMind is now changing its default centre points to be in the middle of bodies of water.