Registration forms make it too easy to cheat

Written by Adrian Holovaty on March 26, 2003

Two of America's most highly trafficked news sites, and, require users to give out personal information in return for access to news. Alas, these registration forms practically invite people to cheat, because they provide easily replicated examples of valid input next to the "year of birth" and "zip" fields:

Screenshot of registration

Screenshot of registration

What incentive do people have not to use these example zip codes and years as their own?

If I'm interested in reading a news article -- one that I've actively sought out, and invested in, by clicking on a link -- I will fight as swiftly as I can to defeat any jarring interruptions a site might throw at me. I suspect many people act the same way. (At least one person does.)


Posted by Julie on March 26, 2003, at 6:04 a.m.:

Make that two. I would find it hysterical that they feel the need to give an example for such a simple input request (...oh THAT'S what a zip code is)...but the skeptic in me can't help but notice that those zip code examples are suspiciously near those papers' locales. Perhaps they WANT users to mimic those zips for specific advertising needs (...I would bet on it if they weren't both national papers). And the year of birth examples sure do hit that 25-35ish demographic.

Posted by Adrian on March 26, 2003, at 6:19 a.m.:

Ha! *Great* point about the locales and demographics. :) I never would've thought about that.

Posted by Sara on March 26, 2003, at 7:39 a.m.:

I, too, make a habit of lying on those things. It pisses me off that they want personal information about me - the cloak of anonymity is one reason I use the Internet in the first place. Until there's a good reason to tell the truth on registrations, it's just as easy and gives me more peace of mind to fudge the data.

Posted by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman on March 26, 2003, at 9:12 a.m.:

It could be worse, Adrian. They could have actually put example values in the input elements that JavaScript would clear out when you entered the field (i.e. the onfocus="this.value='' " trick). Then all people would have to do to cheat would be to submit the form without changing anything. Also, I must say, thank goodness gender selection is done with radio buttons. I would hate to see them have to give an example of gender.</sarcastic comment>

Julie, the way to test your very intriguing suspicion is to check back in a week or a month and see if the "examples" have changed. After all, we can't have too many people register who are exactly 27 and from the 22108 zip code. Next week we need some 28-year-olds from the 22109 zip code.

OK, seriously now, in my mind there is a legitimate usability reason for providing examples. People don't read on the Web, they skim, especially when as Adrian says people like him "fight as swiftly as I can to defeat any jarring interruptions a site might throw at me." In other words, you don't have time to read the directions. Both of those forms ask for "Year of Birth". But very few other forms ask just for your "Year" of birth; lots of forms want to know your "Date" of birth. The "e.g. 1975" is there as a subtle reminder not to enter "3/19/75". A similar argument can be made that "e.g. 22108" is a more elegant way to ask for what you want rather than saying "Zip: (U.S. Only; 5-digit only; do not enter zip+4)." Of course, if server-side scripts were programmed better they ought to translate zip+4's into plain zips and birth dates into birth years itself, rather than giving you an error message.

Posted by Jay on March 26, 2003, at 2:50 p.m.:

I *ALWAYS* lie on these forms. The Washington Post is the worst. You'd think they'd set a cookie or something so that I don't have to lie every single goddamned time I click through to their site from some link.

Either way, I find personal information gathering ridiculous. If the form is too short, people lie. If the form is too long, people leave (or lie). I suppose until advertisers realize that the web isn't what they think it is, this silliness will continue...

Posted by BenM on March 26, 2003, at 3:30 p.m.:

By the way everyone I'm an "Accountant" from "Afghanistan". who earns "less than $20,000" and yes "I Subscribe" to the paper.

Such obviously bogus data is submitted to these kinds of forms hundreds of times. It must be a nightmare to try and filter out "valid" responses and keep the statistics looking reasonable. I for one am uncomfortable about telling some newspaper in the USA (I'm really from England by the way) details of my salary and such like. Sure it's nice for their statistics but it feels like an invasion of privacy, given that many sites don't allow you to register without providing some details in order to protect my civil liberties I feel compelled to "Lie".

Posted by John Roberts on March 26, 2003, at 4:33 p.m.:

While I, too, often find myself frustrated by registration forms, I'm sympathetic to why they are being required. Advertisers want some form of proof of the quality of your audience. And it seems like most here do actually want to read these sites.

While anywhere from 30-70% of the data is off-base (depending on which research you read, and how painful the form is), this mimics the controlled circulation world in print, and it's acceptable there. Have none of you claimed to have 'purchase authority' of several million dollars a year in, say, 'communications equipment'?

Where I work, we talk about how we can make registration positive instead of punitive, but we do need to find some way to 'prove' to advertisers that people they want to reach are reading our news. Adrian, at least, works for a website that (at least on the face) is advertising-supported. Are any of the others commenting here? Do you have alternatives?

Regarding the registration forms cited, I'll bet they used to have more explainer text when they started! ;-)

Posted by MadMan on March 27, 2003, at 9 a.m.:

I regularly lie on these forms. I'm usually a 40 year old man from Falkland Islands who earns the least amount possible. Good luck finding an advertiser to match that demographic. :)

What pisses me off is how some sites insist on an American format for ZIP codes. For those of us who don't live in USA (I live in India), it's infuriating.

OK, I'll reveal MadMan's trick to quickly filling forms. Use the down arrow-tab combo continuously. The down arrow selects the first option in the drop-down list, and the tab moves to the next field. Rinse, repeat.

Related article: Usable forms for an international audience

Posted by Jay Small on March 27, 2003, at 3:10 p.m.:

Yes, some people will lie and cheat on registration forms as long as they're all stick and no carrot. And Adrian's two examples do, indeed, make it way too easy to fake.

I work for Web sites that require profile-based registration (Belo Interactive). What we're learning is giving users control over their entire experience (from newsletters to message boards to sectional content access to personalization to contest entries) under one profile is the key to minimizing phony sign-ups. And it's the key to best-possible customer satisfaction under a registration system.

On that last example -- contest entries -- let's just say you're unlikely to fake contact information if you want prize booty to find its way to you.

Web "insiders" can lie and cheat on registration all day and all night, but the vast majority of people do not exhibit that behavior.

Those of you who adamantly oppose registration as a Web currency, in my view a far better alternative to fee-for-content, all I can say is you're welcome to rage against the machine right up until the value of anonymously served ad messages reaches zero.

Posted by kpaul on March 27, 2003, at 4:25 p.m.:

I must admit that on a lot of forms I put in 1900 as my birth year - some even let me go back into the 1800s. ;)

Posted by Chris Heisel on April 2, 2003, at 4:10 p.m.:

I think alot of the lying comes from a general lack of trust between the user and the site. How many times have you given someone on the Internet an honest e-mail address and gotten spam?

Sites that are going to use registration (which will probably be all eventually given the need to present targeted ads) should state in big bold type that any info you give them won't be sold to anyone -- a tactic similar to those sites that don't use pop-ups and explain that if you're seeing them then you've got spyware...

Posted by Pampers McGee on April 4, 2003, at 5:19 p.m.:

Lying? Gimme a break! It's a plain and simple issue of protecting your privacy. I don't answer truthfully questions corporations shouldn't be asking. Corporations are inherently untrustworthy, so why would I hand my personal information over to them for no good reason?

Posted by Ralph Hardwick on February 3, 2004, at 7:47 p.m.:

As a web designer I am divided quite equally on this issue. I usually lie on a form that asks for my name, and age. Who cares, its a pointless form and no advertiser would take such a small detail set as indication of site usage anyway.

I am however strongly for registration forms that can actually enhance your viewing experience. But they should not be mandatory to read news. I have set up several large scale sites that do take user registration, but they dont impinge on your browsing experience. Fair enough, on most you can't access the members area, or do any personalisation, or buy anything, get the idea. But they DO let you get a feel for the site to see if its worth registering or not.

Posted by Infinite Gravity Data Services on October 21, 2004, at 4:22 p.m.:

I'm in the data processing business; it's my job to try to filter out, validate and/or clean the garbage that other people enter --intentionally or otherwise.

In Canada there are pretty stringent privacy laws. And even though privacy is always in the news, I still receive requests to do some funky matching or updating that would be illegal. I politely refuse the work, but what really bugs me is the people that just don't get it. It's going to take a long time to educate enough people to reach a critical mass in terms of privacy awareness. And that's exactly what most of the privacy commissioners are trying to do at the moment. Educate businesses and individuals, not necessarily bang them over the head with fines or whatnot.

In the meantime, I completely agree with the concept of refusing to answer irrelevant questions. But you might be surprised at the number of people who freely answer any and all questions with accurate data, without even thinking twice.

Posted by Tim on September 1, 2005, at 8:38 p.m.:

I don't think you guys understand why they put "examples" there next to the field.

What year were you born? 80,79 or 98. Or were you born in 1980,1979,1998. Yes they are the same, but to a computer 80 is different than 1980.

Same with zip code. Do you live in 46514? or 46514-6223? or 46514-4541?

But then again.. I lie too... they don't need to know any of this for me to read the site.

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