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referral spamJust this week, I noticed a very popular scam resurface and begin circulating around message boards and similar Internet communities. The Internet is filled with scammers and other bad people. Those of us with years of Internet experience know all about receiving emails relating to 419 scams. They are relentless. You should consider this to be the lower tier of online scams.

From Craigslist to your personal inbox, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself in a position where you’ve got to look at one of these ugly scams straight in the face and make a decision. One that seems to catch a lot of gullible people is a scam that presents them with an incentive to get them to send referral traffic to their website.

What Does The Referral Spam Scam Look Like?

The referral spam scam has many different faces. The core of this scam is to interest people in a product, picture, or other endgame. To obtain this item, the user will need to send a certain number of people to the website, using a referral link. A referral link is a link with a unique tag to it that acts as a way to translate any traffic that comes through that link as your referral. The link will typically look something like this: http://www.scamwebsite.com/?ref=KAS78FKDG. In this example, KAS78FKDG would be considered your referral ID. Backends of these scam websites are coded to credit all traffic incoming from that link to you.

These types of scam websites come in all shapes and sizes. The idea that I recall most vividly is a website with a picture of a female, usually claiming to be a jealous ex-lover’s girlfriend. The setup is that this jealous ex-lover has multiple revealing pictures of this female, and to “unlock” each picture you’ll need to send traffic to your unique referral link. Referrals that you send in typically have to perform some sort of action, like wait a certain number of seconds, click an ad, or participate in a link, and then you are credited with that referral. The more referrals you get, the more shameful pictures are revealed.

This scam doesn’t only target an adult audience, although that’s one of the most viable forms of pulling this off successfully (as coming up with a naughty pic set online is, as you can imagine, not very difficult).

referral spam

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As shown above, this is a new and popular spin on the scam. Users are promised that if they refer enough people to this website through their unique link, they will be able to redeem free games on Steam. When the user finally reaches the required amount of referrals to unlock their key, they are coincidentally turned away and told that the game is no longer available or that the website currently has no invites left to give.

referral spam

Not only is this completely ripping the user off for their hard work, but it also creates a culture of annoying spam that you’ll eventually see throughout Internet communities. The scam makes an ass out of you in more ways than one.

How Should I Know This Is a Scam?

For a layman, it could be difficult to gauge whether or not something like this is actually a scam. Having experience in working in online and Internet marketing in specific, it comes more naturally.

How is your act of sending simple referrals to this website paying off for them in the end?
Games on Steam are rather expensive. Even if the website has ads plastered all over it, be able to piece together that they wouldn’t be making nearly enough to hold up on their giveaway promise.

Does the website look trustworthy?
To be straightforward about it, these scams are run by people who are often desperate for money. These sorts can’t afford to pay for a professional design. None of the websites will look very professional and should immediately come across as amateur and untrustworthy.

Was this website registered and created by someone I can trust?
Run a WHOIS check on the domain. For the domain shown in the screenshots above, it was registered just 3 days before I noticed it circulating the web. That isn’t a very long window to establish trust. Private or sketchy WHOIS information is another dead giveaway.

How Does The Scammer Benefit?

This is the question that most struggle with. Referral spam traffic is very viral. For every one person who wants to participate in the scam, they’re acting as a workhorse to pull ten others in. After a while, your base of (scammed) users begins to work all by itself and you’ve got this little empire where you’re scamming people who are sending you a consistent amount of viral, snowball traffic.

The most important part to understand is that traffic is valuable, no matter what type it is. When you have lots of people visiting your website, even if they are behaving in no way to directly make you cash, you have something incredibly valuable. Traffic can be used and manipulated in hundreds of different ways.

Many referral spam sites use incentive ads or locked surveys. These are becoming incredibly popular. Even after the user has attained their number of required referrals, they’re then asked to participate in a survey to advance in to the final step of claiming what was promised to them. This is just another part of the chain that continues to put cash in the scammers pocket. The scammer knows you’ve spent so much time getting all of these referrals that at this point you’re desperate. Of course you’re going to do a little survey.

Other ways are just placing ads on the website. More sinister scammers could be using ActiveX, Flash, or other embedded content to try and exploit the browser and infect that viral traffic with malware. There’s really no telling what they’re doing, but you can guarantee that money is their motive.

Have you been the victim of a referral spam scam like this?  If so, tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

  1. Silver
    May 6, 2016 at 2:10 am

    CashCrate, SwagBucks(although very few are legit), some online cash things, you get the idea.

  2. Jessica alexander
    April 12, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    O-M-G Im sooo embarassed! I to fell for 1 of these "scams". The one called "TheReferralCash" I feel so STUPID!!!

  3. kenneth
    December 16, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    please is referral linking as a whole bad or only the ones that have the form that should be avoided.please i need a response

  4. Davy Me
    September 26, 2012 at 9:37 am

    This sucks!! I did the survey.. entered valuable information like my email address, insurance for my car because i wanted a quote anyways.. but still i'm guessing my VIN number is also valuable??

  5. Enn Ellandi
    July 30, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Useful information though, I have some experience to identify this kind of websites
    Also I'm not play games and watch naughty picts.
    As far as I know those two group are most vulnerable groups concerning this kind of cheat

  6. renii
    July 7, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Two nights ago,browsing google, clicked a picture to zoom the thumbnail, up pops Moneypak complete with a FBI logo "gotcha" notice saying my puter was blocked for downloading and transmitting copyrighted material. Screen freeze, no escape, keyboard locked. Powered down and reboot and find that IE was cranked up and attempting to upload to unknown website. IE is my secondary browser and is run in a restricted memory mode so it was locked out of the net. Also found that taskmanager settings were changed so no process could be aborted/stopped. Moneypak wanted me to ante up some $USD to "unlock" my puter. Before DOS in the BBS days scams came and went & they change with the times. Have to agree with MotionMan.

  7. Cyrus
    July 5, 2012 at 3:26 am

    Minecraft is one.
    http://freeminecraftcodesgen.com/win/
    Don't let tempation overcome you.

  8. Divit Dsouza
    July 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    And don't forget the ones that are hidden in short URLs (bit.ly/xxxx , goo.gl/yyyy)

  9. Hamza
    July 4, 2012 at 10:09 am

    OMG i have been scammed my whole life -.-
    last one was from a friend who sent me a link in an online game asking me to send it again to other 10 in order to have a free Champion skin, the website was clearly not designed as god as the original so i left quickly, i was scared and i turned on every antispywere and antivirus i had. but nothing found. well, at least i'm glad to hear that these types of scamers are only after money from the traffic, not to harm others with viruses. thanks for the explanation

  10. blue4t
    July 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I've been targeted for this kind of scam, but when it comes to sending referrals I balk. I've done the kind where it's "click on the stuff you want sent to your email" kind of stuff where you can say no thanks and go to the next page, but it's never ending. Eventually, I give up.

  11. MotionMan
    July 3, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Ironically, just the other day, in order to download MakeUseOf's own 'How To Jailbreak Your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad', I had to either subscribe to the MakeUseOf Newsletter or, in a very "Referral Spam"-like way, share a link on FaceBook (or Twitter, or Google Plus).

    Perhaps if the legitimate websites, like MakeUseOf, did not encourage us to spam our friends, more people would not fall for these scams from the illegitimate websites?

    MotionMan

    • Craig Snyder
      July 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      That argument is tough for me to come to terms with because what you're doing is basically saying, "Your website does the same as this other website, but the only difference is that this other website does it in a way that is meant to manipulate, harm, or steal from the user." That's a really glaring difference and that's entirely what makes the concept wrong. The only relevant part of the issue is that both sides receive what the other has agreed upon.

      MakeUseOf provides many guides that are free of any monetary cost. What you're "paying" to MUO is a little social exposure, should you choose the option to share the link on Facebook or another social network. You can't be forced to do it and once you do, should you choose to, you get exactly what was promised to you.

      The overall goal to be met in an exchange like this is that one side promises one thing, the other side promises another, and both promises are kept when agreed upon. These scam websites either don't keep their promises and decieve the user outright, or they keep their promise and then go through measures to manipulate the user once the promise is met.

      MakeUseOf never asks anyone to send out spam. In situations like the ones you've referenced, we're asking that users please share their support and interest in the site site with their friends. Doing so helps us provide free information that we've worked hard to put together, keep less advertisements on the site, and ultimately keep MUO running.

      • MotionMan
        July 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm

        Don't get me wrong - I think that MakeUseOf is great and does provide a lot of value for "nothing". I also think it is unfortunate that spammers and scammers seem to ruin everything that is good and legitimate.

        However, one way these scams work is because they resemble what legitimate site do. It just seems to me that, once the spammers and scammers have taken over a particular type of interaction, the legitimate sites might want to work on a new way to get the word out. Of course, it is neither fair or easy. Sorry.

        MotionMan

      • Ron007
        July 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm

        Craig:

        If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be ....

        With a big grin I have to agree with Motion Man. Why, because at the TOP of the emailed article, you have this text

        Tip of the Day: You can acquire free software by participating in the MakeUseOf Rewards program! Acquire points to exchange for free software and giveaway entries by creating a MakeUseOf account, commenting on out website, and sharing our articles on social networks.

        Sure looks like a referral scam ... You just have to love the irony. Thanks for my laugh of the day.

        Like MM, I too am a long time fan and user of the site.

    • wOrkarOund
      July 4, 2012 at 2:25 am

      There's a difference. You don't HAVE to share a link. Becasue I know you are going to argue already, "No, you don't". If you make the effort, you will see it's true.

      So, I don't feel that it is the same thing.

      • MotionMan
        July 4, 2012 at 5:43 am

        I never said you *had* to share a link. I was just pointing out the irony of MakeUseOf posting an article like this when I JUST went through many of the same steps they flagged as suspicious in order to get another one of the GREAT MUO's HowTo Guides.

        The reason the scams work is because they resemble real giveaways. Because of that, I thought it would be good business for sites like MUO to change that fact.

        MotionMan

    • Divit Dsouza
      July 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      You could always set the audience to "Only Me" :) Comes in handy sometimes...

  12. druv vb
    July 3, 2012 at 11:12 am

    The other side of the Internet - scrupulous people.
    There's no way to stop them, unless the whole Internet network is down for years...

    Spammers are always creative at their work to extract information.
    Be it a simple mail or advert.

    We as users should always be careful for not being a click-aholic...

    " Everything that shines is not gold, its just a shiny bee with a strong stinger shot..."

  13. Yudono Ra
    July 3, 2012 at 9:56 am

    if it's too good to be true, it's (almost) definately a scam..

  14. Tanguy Djokovic
    July 3, 2012 at 8:37 am

    great article, we are never too cautious when it comes to internet and the gaming community...
    I keep getting warning from blizzard saying that I need to send them my password because they think I'm trying to sell my account... nice try hacker but I won't fall for it

    • Craig Snyder
      July 3, 2012 at 10:11 am

      WoW (and other Blizzard games, for that matter) and Runescape are two of the most targeted online games when it comes to fraud, phishing, and other scam. I look over my junk mail every now and then and always see attempts to phish my Battle.net account.

      Never, never fall for these. I'd even recommend you go as far as to get an authenticator for your Battle.net account.

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