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8 min read

Fraud Detection: Online Survey Scams and How To Spot Them

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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.

Before they know it, their online accounts have been compromised, there’s malware on their computer/smartphone, and their personal data is being sold to the highest bidder on the Dark Web. In fact, some consumers may not realize that they’ve been had at all until they start getting bills and charges for items they didn’t purchase… Or they start getting constant nuisance phone calls from sales reps who are convinced that they were interested in hearing more about their products and services.

Fraudulent online surveys hurt not only consumers but brands, too. Companies can suffer reputational damage as a result of scam-filled online surveys or even lose money if the information taken during survey scams is resold to them as genuine lead information by fraudsters.

What is an online survey scam? How does it affect consumers and brands? Most importantly, what can you do to find and stop survey fraud? 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.

These scam surveys will often pose as legitimate public opinion polls or consumer surveys. Some might even pretend to be personality quizzes on social media sites like Facebook—asking personal questions with the promise of telling you which of your favorite fictional characters you’re most like or your spirit animal (or something similar).

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.” 

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.

Impacts of Survey Scams on Consumers

Online survey scams can hurt consumers in a few different ways, such as:

  • Generating “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.
  • Compromising 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.
  • Committing Identity Theft. Using information collected during the “survey,” fraudsters can try to steal the identities of whoever takes the survey. For example, fraudsters could learn personal details about their victims, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, email information, and other data. Using this information, the fraudster could sign up for new credit cards or loans. This method could enable fraudsters to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in damages for each identity stolen.

Impacts of Survey Scams on Brands

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 of ways that survey scams can impact brands 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. For example, say that the organization uses security questions for password resets. With information gathered during a “personality quiz,” a scammer could force a password reset and hijack an employee’s account. Using the stolen credentials, a scammer might then be able to access sensitive systems and commit fraud on a breathtaking scale—causing significant operational disruptions and financial losses.
  • 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. This can be nearly impossible to prevent. Alternatively, companies that rely on contacts “generated” by fraudsters who stole consumer info during a survey scam 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 TCPA fines of $500 to $1,500 per contact attempt—as well as class action lawsuits. Across thousands of leads, these fines can quickly add up. Potential class action suits further exacerbate the company’s legal expenditures.

Tricks Used in Online Survey Scams

Scammers use a lot of different tricks to try to get unsuspecting victims to click on and fill out their fake surveys. Some common tricks include:

Offering “Free” Gifts for Survey Fills

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.

In many cases, the “free” gift in a scam survey is either nothing more than fiction or has so many conditions attached that it’s almost impossible to claim. The withholding of these promised rewards can be frustrating for consumers—which enhances the potential reputational damage if the scammer was impersonating a real business in their fraudulent survey.

Impersonating Legitimate Companies

Just because someone gets an online survey saying that it’s from 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, SurveyMonkey now has a section on their site warning their customers to be aware of online survey scams from fraudsters claiming to be sponsored by SurveyMonkey.

This can be incredibly damaging to major brands because of how it associates the survey scam with that entity. Even if consumers later realize that the brand wasn’t behind the fraud, there will always be lingering trust issues like “is this offer really from XYZ.com, or is it another scam?” The result is reduced marketing effectiveness that impacts customer acquisition and retention.

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 the victim clicks and begins to fill out the survey, they may notice that the form requires oddly sensitive details such as their 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 for such off-topic and sensitive information.

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Sending Email Scams

It’s hard for many consumers to keep track of every mailing list they’ve signed up for (e.g., retail, political, and entertainment lists).

So, when you see a survey appear in your email that falls in line with your interests, you may be ready to click. But you shouldn’t click on it carelessly! Unless you can positively confirm that you’ve opted into that survey contact list, there’s a chance it was sent with 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 as you use your device. Once the fraudsters have your info, you’re at risk for identity theft. And that’s just the consumer fallout.

For brands, fraudsters who take that scraped data and sell it to third parties can put companies who utilize that data at risk of violating TCPA compliance. This can happen when fraudsters use the stolen data in their lead generation fraud schemes.

Conducting Conversion/Lead Generation Fraud

If your company is running a real survey using form fill-outs, you, too, can fall prey to fraudsters. Form fills are no longer safe from fraud. Why? Because 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 form bot fraud. If you were offering incentives for online survey fills, the fraudster may even abscond with them!

Tips for Fraud Detection

Survey scams aren’t likely to stop anytime soon. It’s simply too easy for fraudsters to create a disposable email address, fake social media account, or website to deliver scammy surveys to mass audiences to. And, even a poorly-worded, obviously fake survey can get someone to fall for it with enough time or wide enough of a distribution channel.

So, to protect themselves from the negative impacts of survey fraud and scam surveys, both consumers and brands need to take a few vital precautions.

What Consumers Can Do

One of the best things consumers can do to avoid survey scams is to learn the warning signs of an online survey scam. This can include things like:

  • Lengthy Prequalification Processes. Some surveys might offer a reward, but ask to “pre-qualify” the survey taker. Scammers use this method all the time to collect a victim’s personal information, then say at the end of the survey “Sorry, but you don’t qualify for the survey reward.”
  • Asking for Payment. If you see an ad for a survey site that offers you surveys that earn you money, but then asks you to pay them for the privilege, there’s a good chance that the “survey site” is actually a scam.
  • The Reward for Survey Completion is Too Good to Be True. It is highly unlikely that a company offering a five-minute survey will pay $50 for its completion. It’s more likely that you’ll get a discount offer or coupon worth a few dollars. Scammers will target the desperate with offers like “get $100 now for filling out this short survey!” So, if the offer sounds too good to be true, it’s probably clickbait for a scam.
  • No Data Privacy Policy. In the wake of regulations like GDPR and CCPA, a data privacy warning should be considered a given in any online survey being sent to the public. This should include information about what information is being collected, how it will be used, and confirmation of your consent to share data with any third parties that the survey maker is working with.

Another thing that consumers should watch out for is the links in any emails offering to send them to a survey. 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, a scammer spoofed Mozilla’s URL simply by replacing the letter ‘i’ with a similar symbol—switching character code U+0069 with character code U+00ED.

Domain Spoofing - fraud detection - online survey scams

What Companies Can Do about Survey Fraud

So, what can companies do to limit the impact of survey scams and fraud targeting their customers or imitating their brand? Unfortunately, preventing scammers from making and distributing their fake surveys via email, social media ads, and other channels you don’t control is virtually impossible.

However, there are things that brands can do to help limit risk and impact from scam surveys, such as:

  • Proactively Warning Customers when Scam Surveys Are Found. If you notice that a large-scale scam is leveraging your company’s name, be proactive about warning your consumer base about it. Providing this warning can help your customers learn about the fake survey so they can better avoid it—and help disassociate your brand from the fraud.
  • Training Employees to Recognize Phishing and Survey Scams. It can help to provide employees in your organization with some training so they can more easily recognize phishing emails and survey scams. This helps by reducing the risk of your employees falling for these scams and accidentally giving away sensitive information or access credentials that scammers can use.
  • Employing an Ad Fraud Solution. Verifying that the form fills in your own surveys can be an excellent way to minimize survey fraud impacts. 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.

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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