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5 min read

Are Form Bots Compromising Your Survey Data?

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Form bots—automated programs built to fill out forms—have long been a popular tool for committing ad fraud. Fraudsters often use form bots to conduct a specific type of ad fraud: lead generation fraud.

In this scheme, the bot repeatedly fills out lead generation forms while passing credit for the new lead to the fraudster. The company running the lead generation campaign then pays the fraudster for their “contributions,” often not suspecting that all the leads they’ve received are fake and won’t generate positive results—if anything, they’ll generate TCPA violation fines.

However, this isn’t the only use of form bots. Fraudsters have adapted form bots to new schemes—and one such scheme is using form bots to compromise a company’s online surveys.

How could form bots compromise your survey data? Who would use a form bot on your surveys and why? What’s the harm of a bot skewing your company’s survey accuracy? Most importantly, how can you stop these form bots turned survey bots from impacting your corporate surveys?

How Can Form Bots Compromise Survey Data?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes that, in scientific settings, a “surveyor strives for both accuracy and precision” in their surveys. While the two terms are used interchangeably by the general public, accuracy specifically refers to how closely a survey’s results “comes to measuring a ‘true value’” (i.e., how well the survey reflects reality) while precision refers to how “closely repeated measurements or observations come to duplicating measured or observed values” (i.e. how consistent survey results are).

Survey bots can artificially inflate the “precision” of a survey event as they compromise the survey’s accuracy—because if all the bot survey entries are providing the same answers, the survey will look more consistent. However, because the results aren’t real, the accuracy of the survey will be worse. So, to protect survey accuracy, it’s important to identify bot activity so you can exclude it.

The way that a form bot can skew a company’s survey data is fairly similar to the way that it can derail a lead generation campaign. However, instead of filling out a lead gen form repeatedly, the form bot is programmed to fill out a survey repeatedly instead.

The form bot (now turned survey bot) logs into the target survey platform and creates a fake account or provides a false identity (often based off a real consumer’s data) to trick those running the survey into thinking it’s a real response. The bot then fills out the survey—either providing completely random responses or, if the fraudster took the time to check out the survey questions and wanted to skew it to a particular result, repeatedly provides similar answers to the survey.

Suddenly, an online survey asking “how familiar are you with our company?” goes from 83% of respondents saying “not very” to having 90% of respondents saying “very familiar.” This would skew the results and give the marketing department in the company a false sense of their overall brand awareness.

Who Would Use Form Bots to Skew Your Company’s Surveys?

What motivations would a fraudster have for letting bots loose on your surveys? There are a few potential reasons why someone would want to mess with your surveys, such as:

  • To Claim Credit for Getting People to Fill Out the Survey. If you’re offering incentives to marketing affiliates or others to guide people to your surveys, there is a chance that some might abuse the system. These fraudsters could use form bots to claim credit for sending a lot of “people” to fill out your survey. If you’re offering incentives directly to the people filling out the survey (like a gift card), then fraudsters may set up form bots programmed to give you email addresses that they control so they can redeem the incentives themselves.

  • To Disrupt Your Market Research. Direct monetary gain isn’t the only motive that someone may have to unleash bots on your surveys. Some may want to disrupt your company’s market research efforts—skewing your survey data so that you cannot make well-informed decisions about your marketing or overall business strategy. For example, an unscrupulous competitor could, theoretically, hire a fraudster to target your surveys and have their bots provide bad feedback in the survey to mislead you.

  • Because They Can. There will always be someone who isn’t interested in committing survey fraud to make money or gain a competitive advantage, but simply for the satisfaction of knowing they have the power and ability to do it. Thrill seekers might construct a simple bot and sic it on an unsuspecting market researcher’s survey just because they find it amusing.

  • For Political Motivations. Some hacktivist groups might use survey bots as another means of harassing an organization that they feel has committed some wrong. These politically-motivated attackers may also use other, more direct, means of disrupting a company’s operations—such as a DDoS attack or malware attack.

How Bad Survey Results Can Hurt a Business

What harm is there in having inaccurate survey data? The potential for harm can vary depending on the nature of the survey and how your organization plans on using it.

For example, say a marketer wants to gauge their company’s brand awareness (how familiar people are with their branding, logos, and company mission). However, a form bot is used on the survey, wildly skewing the results to make it look like an overwhelming majority of respondents are at least somewhat familiar with the brand.

If this survey was being used to determine how much budget to apply to marketing efforts, these results might convince the marketer that not much additional advertising is needed—leading to extreme underspending on marketing that may impair lead generation and sales.

If the survey was attempting to track potential interest in a new product line, compromised survey data could lead to a lot of money being wasted on developing and deploying a product that isn’t as popular as the initial survey indicated. Depending on the size of the organization, R&D costs for the product, materials for production, advertising, and distribution (among other potential costs), the monetary waste for launching an unpopular product can be enormous.

Customer satisfaction surveys that have been compromised by bots can give an organization a skewed impression of how satisfied their customers are with their products and services as a whole. Positive reviews may lead to overlooking endemic problems in the company’s products and services. Meanwhile, negative reviews posted by bots may lead to wasting time and money trying to fix issues that don’t exist.

When negative reviews are posted to popular review sites like Yelp or social media sites, it can hurt the company’s reputation and even drive business away if those fake reviews are taken at face value. Bots can easily share negative posts about a company thousands of times a day under different account names. Bots used this way can be called social media bots.

How to Stop Survey Bots and Preserve Survey Accuracy

To stop survey bots from compromising your survey results, there are a few things that you could potentially do, such as:

  • Not Leaving Open Surveys Up on the Internet. One idea for limiting the risk of bot replies compromising survey data is to limit the accessibility of the survey in the first place. For example, sending out surveys to limited email lists. This could work with customer satisfaction surveys, where you only want the opinions of actual customers. However, it may be problematic with other surveys since it can easily lead to sample bias because of the potentially limited size of the survey mailing list. Also, a lot of people are going to see survey emails (especially ones sent without any previous interaction) as spam.

  • Using CAPTCHA Tools. Many online surveys use CAPTCHA tools to verify that the “people” filling them out are humans and not bot program. However, CAPTCHA is woefully inadequate to the task of filtering out the kind of sophisticated bots modern fraudsters use. In fact, bots have been shown to be able to bypass CAPTCHA 99% of the time.

  • Using Ad Fraud Solutions to Detect Bots. Bot-detecting ad fraud solutions can be invaluable for identifying form bots targeting your surveys. By automating the process of bot detection, you can catch bot activity much faster than you could with more manual methods. The major caveat is that not all ad fraud solutions are created equally. It’s important to look for solutions that are certified to detect bot activity in real time so they can proactively prevent your survey data from being compromised.

  • Employing Honeypot Form Fields. One trick for catching form bots is to use a “honeypot” form field to identify bots. A honeypot form field is a field that exists only in the code of a web form and isn’t visible to human website visitors. Since bots “see” the page by checking its code, they’ll see the hidden form field and attempt to fill it out. If the honeypot field is filled, then you know it was a bot filling out the survey form. However, more sophisticated bots programmed by fraudsters who know what questions are actually on the survey may be able to bypass these hidden form fields.

Need help stopping survey bots from compromising your survey accuracy? Anura is a TAG-certified solution that is rated to detect bot activity in real time. Spot bots as they hit your surveys so you can preemptively remove their input from your survey results data—protecting the accuracy of your surveys so you can make more informed, data-driven decisions.

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