How does this scam work?
September 2, 2020 8:24 AM   Subscribe

I idly answered an ad on Facebook looking for product testers for a webcam from an established company. I got a response purporting to be from the company, and although it seems too good to be true, and I'm sure it's a scam, I can't see how the scam works. Help me out.

The email is vague in what's expected of testers (alarm bells), and comes from [company name], which has an expired SSL certificate, rather than [company name].com (further alarm bells). It promises a free webcam for a week's testing at which point you have to submit 200 words of review to them. The webcam is worth £60.

The email they sent me asks me to search for the product on, buy it, and then send them the order ID and my PayPal email address, at which point they'll rebate me. How can this benefit a scammer? You can't take money from someone just with their PayPal email address, right? The product is sold by the real company through Amazon and fulfilled by Amazon, so the theoretical scammer isn't funnelling orders through their own Amazon business.

I'm highly wary of this and I'm not going to do anything with it until I get a response from [company]'s official marketing email contact. But I'm curious as to what the angle is! The worst case I can see so far is that I order the webcam and then don't ever get a rebate ... in which case I've just ordered and received a webcam from a legitimate company. The company is a real, American company - they're not a gigantic megacorp, but they very much do exist and make real cameras that lots of people buy.
posted by spielzebub to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have had offers like this on Facebook, and at least partly out of curiosity about whether they were legit, I responded. These were for food (low-carb), and much cheaper than a 60 quid webcam, so YMMV. However I sent them the Amazon order ID and my Paypal email address, and I got the refund through Paypal as promised. FYI, a few of the offers I didn't actually go through with, as when I went further with them it became clear that they required positive Amazon reviews, which violates Amazon's terms of service I believe. I only did the ones that didn't require review.

Anyway, the conclusion I came to with all of this is that these companies want people to try their product in the hope that you'll like it and want to keep buying it with your own money. They're usually paying an intermediary marketing company to attempt to get you to try the product. In these Covid-times, companies can't give samples in physical stores, so this presumably is what they're trying instead.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:40 AM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I heard a Reply-All episode about this recently. Having good Amazon reviews can be really valuable to a company. There's a whole shady industry of fake/paid reviews and for the review to get weighted heavily it needs to be a verified purchase (and I think something about you searching for the product and then clicking on it also benefits the product via some algorithm.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:40 AM on September 2, 2020 [6 favorites]

Yeah, the scam is largely to game Amazon's system, not to hurt you any. Amazon is cracking down on verified purchases, so they can't send you the cam for free in return for a review. They need the activity of a real human with real Amazon history buying (just this, without the review, can bop it up the search result algo a bit) and ideally positively reviewing it.

Overall this is a lot less creepy than brushing, but it's still fairly dishonest in spirit.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:52 AM on September 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

If American, you should keep in mind if you choose to participate in this scheme that FTC guidelines require disclosure when you promote an item in exchange for a free product.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:55 AM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

This seems like a fairly plausible explanation, particularly since the email instructions included this line:

2. Find the product pictured below, feel free to look around at some of the competitors to compare their features, then click on our product, add the product to your cart and check out.

However, they haven't specified anything about reviews - in fact, they specifically say:

You are not required [emphasis mine] to post feedback to any specific website, however, please feel free to share your feedback on Social Media, YouTube, Forums, Blogs, Deal Websites, or any other online retail spaces.

I'm in the UK, so the FTC can't get me, but I would have mentioned in a review if the product was free anyway. If the upshot of this is that a company sends me a free £60 webcam in order to boost their Amazon search rankings, I'm completely fine with that.
posted by spielzebub at 8:59 AM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

There are a number of ways a company can make this scheme a pain for you. They can "forget" to refund you over PayPal. They can put your refund at the bottom of the pile. Many of these "mistakes" are hard to attribute to malice, and it is unlikely they will ever be pursued for them. If they were, all they'd have to do is refund you £60 to "fix the mistake". If it's a fairly large company, I'd be less worried about this possibility, but if it were a smaller company, I'd be more worried.

They are expecting you to generate reviews for them. If you generate many good reviews, they'll likely provide you with other offers. There's no coincidence that many of Amazon's top reviewers consistently get free product. If you generate no reviews, they're unlikely to go back to you - and £60 is a fairly minor expense to them.

I'm not saying you shouldn't do this - like you said, a free webcam is a free webcam - just don't kid yourself about their goals here.
posted by saeculorum at 9:07 AM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I got a really nice set of bamboo sheets and a silk pillowcase for free by being a tester, after responding to an ad for testers on instagram. It was for a US based company but the process was pretty similar to what you describe. I left reviews for the products on Amazon and the company website. I suppose they could drop the ball on reimbursing you via Paypal, but just sharing an anecdote of one time when this was legit and not a scam.
posted by zdravo at 9:36 AM on September 2, 2020

2. Find the product pictured below, feel free to look around at some of the competitors to compare their features, then click on our product, add the product to your cart and check out.

The way the Amazon algorithm works includes looking at what else people looked at before buying something. By doing this, you're raising their rank as far as what will be presented to actual consumers, both in terms of what will be shown when a consumer searches for "webcam" and in the "people that looked at this item also looked at this item" section.

You are not required [emphasis mine] to post feedback to any specific website, however, please feel free to share your feedback on Social Media, YouTube, Forums, Blogs, Deal Websites, or any other online retail spaces.

Wink wink, nudge nudge. If you do nothing, you get a free webcam. If you shill for them, they'll loop you into a network of companies that give consumers free stuff in return for boosting them on social media/Amazon.

Per jacquilynne, technically you have to disclose this.
posted by Candleman at 10:20 AM on September 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

You are "collateral the-opposite-of-damage" here: the seller's Amazon reviews are boosted, and you end up with zero dollars spent. The "damage" comes if the product is junk and your positive review tricks some innocent shopper into buying it.

*shrug* I did this a couple of times. I was honest in the reviews about what worked best and what didn't. I may have been lucky, though: the products weren't actually garbage. (For example, I reviewed a pair of inexpensive BlueTooth earbuds. I have big ears, and these used silicone tips so they actually fit me when no Apple earphone ever has.) And yes, you should mention that you got it for free.

One aspect of this is that it's usually a small company which is purchasing knock-offs of well-known products. In this case, the design is probably sound and the product works -- and these sellers are just trying to make a single surge of sales and then move on to the next thing.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:44 PM on September 2, 2020

A friend of mine used to work in Amazon for the department that tries to weed out fake reviews. They have a complicated system to detect and remove/downgrade listings for products with what they determine to be fake reviews... and in return companies get more sophisticated about how they get reviews to make them basically indistinguishable from "authentic" reviews. This Buzzfeed News article is one of the first long-form profiles I saw on how this now works.
posted by muddgirl at 2:24 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm in the UK, so the FTC can't get me

I'm almost positive that in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority (and possibly others, I'm not in the UK so I don't know specifics) would take a dim view of non-disclosure.
posted by Aleyn at 3:01 PM on September 2, 2020

Not to thread sit, just popping back to reiterate that I have never had any intention of posting a review without disclosing the fact that I got the product for free. But it's good to know that that's a requirement in the UK as well!
posted by spielzebub at 3:42 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in this article on Ars Technica, about how Amazon's top UK reviewers are all on the take...
posted by rambling wanderlust at 1:44 PM on September 4, 2020

Amazon just deleted a bunch of reviews that sound like this type of thing.
posted by Candleman at 6:49 AM on September 5, 2020

If anyone's interested in how this played out - I did go for it, the webcam is fine but not perfect, and I sent them 200 words to that effect. They thanked me, credited me the cost through PayPal, and suggested but did not require that I post a review on Amazon, which I have not done. As far as I'm concerned, this worked out great.
posted by spielzebub at 11:12 AM on September 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

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