The Art Of The Online Scam

February 13, 2019
4 mins read

PAT PILCHER takes a look at the big business of Facebook scams and affiliate marketing and offers up a tip for getting those obnoxious ads off your screen.

I spend a lot of time procrastinating on Facebook. It’s a great setup except for one glaring issue – adverts. Many Facebook users are awash with obnoxious adverts.

While most can live with shouty ads simply by scrolling past them, I find the sheer number of ugly and scammy adverts on Facebook staggering. These include the improbable ‘earn $12,000 a week by working from home’ (the only way most people can earn that sort of money working from home is by selling themselves or drugs).

One advert that tore my shorts was the ‘Internet speed booster – It’s only $74.95! and is developed by ex-Nasa Engineer, Dr Smalltodger!!!’

Macabrely fascinated by this shouty piece of video dishonesty, I perversely tried to watch the advert through, but the outright lies peddled soon saw me blocking and reporting the advert. While you can optimise your internet speed and buy faster plans from your internet service provider, going faster than the speed provided by your ISP isn’t possible, even if you’ve spent US$74.95 on a bogus widget developed by someone posing as a Nasa engineer (but who was, in reality, a janitor).

So, what can be done to avoid such obnoxious adverts? At best they’re a distraction. In reality, they are a total pain the ass and are hellbent on taking money from people who probably don’t know any better and can’t afford to lose any in the first place.

Avoidance is a good short-term strategy. To this end, I recommend installing a Chrome plugin called Facebook Purity. It blocks the deluge of Facebook dross. It can also alert me to anyone who has unfriended of unfollowed me (don’t try that at home, folks).

Nicest of all you can set filters to block posts containing specific keywords, which means I don’t have to scroll through several metric tonnes of crap about Trump, Brexit and other similar nonsense that populates Facebook.

Avoidance is a useful tactic, but it is still, at best, a band-aid over a stab wound. Because of this, I alert other Facebook users with comments that the post is a scam and am often scathing about whatever snake oil is being touted. If enough people post negative comments and report these adverts to Facebook, there is an infinitesimally small chance that the offending advert may be removed or not acted on by other Facebook users, while reducing the incentive for scammers to advertise.

You’d think Facebook would be doing everything in their power to block and remove scammers from their platform, but the reality is far more complicated.

Scammy advertising on Facebook is a huge business. A San Diego based team of dodgy affiliate marketers raked in a whopping US$179 million last year before being busted by the Federal Trade Commission for violating US online trading laws.

By allowing such a huge volume of scammy adverts, it is arguable that Facebook is tacitly endorsing said scams. Facebook, of course, can (and do) argue that they have placed a sizeable amount of resources into combating the problem.

The reality is that Facebook has unwittingly revolutionised how online scammers work. Thanks to the uncannily accurate Facebook targeting algorithms and the vast amount of personal data stored on users, the legwork scammers need to do to identify potential victims gets hugely reduced.

Further helping things along is Voluum. It’s an app that not only helps dodgy affiliates keep track of scammy ad campaigns, but also helps scammers defeat Facebook’s ad network defences.

According to the software’s creator, a Polish national called Robert Gryn, users of Voluum place a whopping US$400 million worth of ads a year on Facebook (and an additional $1.3 billion on other social networks).

So how does the whole affiliate marketing process work? Take, for example, a bogus penis enlargement pill peddler who wants to sell its dodgy todger extender meds for $10 a pill. They’ll approach an affiliate marketing network, offering to pay $6 per Facebook sign-up. The affiliate network spreads the word to affiliates, who in turn design adverts, placing them on Facebook and other online social networks. With their potential market in the billions, the adverts are often highly profitable – even if only a small percentage of total punters become buyers.

Historically, the biggest challenge for online affiliate marketers involved guessing what kind of users are most likely to fall for their cons. Adverts used to target users via demographic data such as age, geography or interests.

Nowadays, Facebook’s algorithm does much of the heavy lifting. It not only tracks who clicks and who buys, but it can also learn to target other potential buyers, based on learnings taken from previous sales. Affiliate ad campaigns will often lose money for a few days as the Facebook algorithm gathers data and learns what sort of Facebook users are potential buyers. Sales take off once the algorithm becomes more precise with its targeting.

Facebook might earn US$40 billion a year from adverts, but when it comes to online scams, they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even though they’ve invested big bucks into killing off online scams on their network, finding and stopping scammers is a task bordering on impossible.

While Facebook has hired teams of reviewers in the US and India to check ads that are flagged as questionable and can ban accounts, dodgy affiliate marketers are easily evading them thanks to a technique called cloaking. Cloaking becomes easier for those using Voluum software.

Voluum not only allows affiliates to customise adverts based on the user’s location and IP address plus other factors, but it can also easily identify the IP addresses of Facebook’s ad reviewers and show them harmless campaigns which are approved.

Even if an affiliate is caught and banned, it isn’t the end. Most end up opening new Facebook accounts under different names and using a VPN to mask their IP addresses. Affiliates have also been known to buy clean user profiles from strangers.

Sadly, most affiliate scammers operate along similar lines to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook has become so good at gathering vast piles of data on their users that those lacking scruples who know how the ins and outs of Facebook’s algorithm works can make very large sums of money indeed.

Facebook is fighting back, but protecting their US$40 billion advertising platform is an ongoing game of cat and mouse. Facebook is now using machine learning to combat cloaking. They say this has reduced dodgy adverts by up to two-thirds. They’ve added over 1000 people to their ad review team and have blocked ads for cryptocurrencies (which are a favourite of online scammers).

Sadly, the grimy business of scam adverts and dodgy online schemes isn’t likely to end any time soon. Facebook, Google, Twitter and other tech giants may be fighting the good fight, but the sheer amount of money able to be made means that caveat emptor and a healthy dose of scepticism should be applied.

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.

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