Just 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).
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.
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.