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Fraud Detection: Online Survey Scams and How To Spot Them

September 15, 2021

When consumers are looking to make money, they may be tempted to spend a few minutes filling out an online survey that promises them a sweet monetary reward. However, what many consumers may not know is that the “free online survey” they’re getting ready to fill out is actually a scam—one designed to steal their personal information.

Fraudulent online surveys hurt not only consumers but brands, too. Here’s what you need to know.

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What Is a Survey Scam?

A survey scam is usually a survey delivered via phone or online communication methods that seeks to gather the personal information of potential victims.

Fraudsters often tell their targets that completing the survey will result in some sort of reward—examples include entry into a “sweepstakes” to win a trip or cash prize, a “coupon” for some popular product or service, or a gift card. Some fraudsters even used the COVID-19 outbreak to send “post-vaccine surveys” that were, of course, fake.

Another potential use of survey scam calls is to try and make an end-run around Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) regulations. As noted by the Office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, some survey fraudsters will make phone calls pretending “to do a research survey to exploit a loophole in the federal ‘Do Not Call” law for legitimate surveys.” 

How Online Survey Scams Hurt Consumers and Brands

The damage done by online scams can vary greatly depending on the nature of the scam, the target, and the attacker’s specific goals. In many cases, online survey scams target consumers to steal their personal data so it can be resold to others or used in identity theft schemes.

This can harm consumers in a few ways:

  • Increased “Nuisance” Calls. When their contact data is illicitly shared with advertisers (such as through lead gen fraud schemes), consumers may see a major increase in nuisance phone calls, emails, and texts from various sources. Some of these unwanted ads may even be from other fraudsters who, knowing the victim has fallen for other scams in the past, see them as an easy target.

  • Compromised Online Accounts.Online survey scams may ask unusual personal questions like “Where did you go to school?” or “What’s your favorite food?” While posing as a personality quiz, the scammer is actually collecting answers to common identity verification questions used by websites. With these questions, fraudsters can force password resets to access their victims’ online accounts. This can be used to defraud the victim of money, access services the victim paid for without their knowledge, or commit identity theft.

  • Identity Theft.Using information collected during the “survey,” fraudsters can try to steal the identity of the people taking part in the survey. For example, they could sign up for new credit cards or loans using the information they took. Using this method, fraudsters can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in damages for each identity stolen.

Consumers aren’t the only ones who can be hurt by these scams. There are situations where an online survey scam can hurt a company, too. Some examples include:

  • Employee Account Compromise.When an employee of a company falls for a survey scam and gives up information matching their security questions, that can affect security for their employer. Using the stolen credentials, a scammer might be able to access sensitive systems and commit fraud using the employee’s user account.

  • Negative Press.Companies can accrue negative press from online survey scams in a couple of ways. First, the fraudsters could use the company’s name to gain their victims’ trust—which results in the company getting blamed for the subsequent fraud. Alternatively, companies that rely on contacts “generated” by fraudsters may end up thinking that they had received permission to contact a lead when they had not. This can lead to increased complaints from the “contacts” in question.

  • Fines for TCPA Violations.Reaching out to people with marketing messaging without their written consent can result in fines under TCPA of $500 to $1,500 per contact. Across thousands of leads, these fines can quickly add up. Potential class action suits further exacerbate the company’s legal expenditures.

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Fraud Detection – Online Survey Scams

To entice users to click, online survey companies typically rely on clickbait titles and taglines like “Win an Amazon Gift Card” by filling out this survey. While some companies have a legitimate giveaway, fraudsters employ the same tactic. However, their intentions are malicious.

To gain users’ trust, fraudsters use different survey scamming tricks, which include:  

Impersonating Legitimate Companies

Just because you get an online survey from a company like Walmart, doesn’t mean that survey is actually from Walmart. It can be a fraudster impersonating a legitimate company, which has happened to SurveyMonkey. As a result, now SurveyMonkey has a section on their site warning their customers to be aware of online survey scams from fraudsters claiming to be sponsored by SurveyMonkey.

Using Phishing Surveys

To gather sensitive information, fraudsters will target individuals with phishing surveys. These surveys can appear as display ads on websites and in social news feeds. Once you click and begin to fill out the survey, you’ll notice the form requires your username, social security number, credit card details, and passwords. These required fields are red flags that you’re dealing with a phishing survey. Remember, a legitimate survey will never ask you for sensitive information.

fraud detection - online survey scams - macbook

Sending Email Scams

It’s hard to keep track of every mailing list you’ve signed up for (e.g. retail, political, entertainment). So, when you see a survey appear in your email that falls in line with your interests, you may be ready to click, but don’t! Unless you can positively confirm that you’ve opted into that survey contact list, it’s likely malicious intent.

Once you click, you open the door for malware to be installed on your computer or mobile device. Now the scammer can skim your banking information, passwords, and more. Once the fraudsters have your info, you’re at risk for identity theft. And that’s just the consumer fallout.

For brands, fraudsters who sell that scraped data and sell it to third parties now put companies who utilize that data at risk for violating TCPA compliance.

Conducting Conversion or Lead Fraud

If you’re a company that is running a real survey using form fill-outs, you, too, are prey for fraudsters. Form fill-outs are no longer safe from fraud. Fraudsters can use sophisticated software to fill out forms and make it look like real customers are taking your survey. Now your company’s survey results are skewed because instead of real users filling out your forms, you’re getting nothing but fraud.

Safeguarding Tips for Fraud Detection

For companies, utilizing an ad fraud detection solution to determine if real users are filling out your online surveys will add a strong layer of protection against conversion/lead fraud. Meanwhile, for individuals, fraudsters aren’t perfect and leave clues behind that can indicate fraud is afoot. Some are obvious, like making you pay for the survey, while others are more subtle.

For example, if a survey wants to pre-qualify you for an hour, that’s a red flag. It’s their way of getting all of your information and leaving you with a “Sorry, you don’t qualify.”

Another clue that the survey doesn’t have your best interests in mind: no privacy policy. How do you know if your data will be protected? You don’t. This also falls in line with signing up for a survey site and unknowingly giving them permission to sell your contact information to third parties. Before signing up for anything, always read the privacy policy and the terms and conditions. If neither are available, ditch the survey.

Also make sure if you are emailed a survey link to hover over the link before clicking. Carefully look at the URL. The fraudsters may employ domain spoofing, making it appear that the URL is a valid site when it isn’t. In this example below, they spoof Mozilla simply by replacing the letter ‘i.’ 

Domain Spoofing - fraud detection - online survey scams

While online survey scams and ad fraud detection isn’t always easy to navigate, there are signs to look for. By taking a moment to pause and do your homework you can avoid potential scams and keep your data (and brand) safe

Get a broader understanding of ad fraud in general and refer to Anura's free resource, the Ad Fraud Detection eBook.

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