Every day tens of millions of people log on to Facebook to spend time plying goofy online games like Farm Ville. But watch out. Some people playing these games are getting fleeced by scammers, tricked into signing up for products and services they didn’t want. Worse yet, this isn’t happening by accident. The companies that develop games for Facebook make big money by selling ad space-some of it to scammers.
The Silicon Valley blogger Michael Arrington, who runs the influential TechCrunch blog, recently caused a ruckus by suggesting that Facebook has been turning a blind eye to the scams because it is sharing in the spoils. “Ultimately this is Facebook’s fault,” Arrington says. Facebook denies Arrington’s charge. David Swain, a company spokesman, says Facebook works hard to stamp out scammer ads and has already disabled two ad networks that were breaking the rules “We have, and will continue to, move aggressively to stop any activities that threaten or damage our user’s experience,” Swain says.
Facebook is the hottest site on the Internet. It has more than 500 million users and added 50 million in the third quarter alone. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that it had become “cash-flow positive” well ahead of schedule. Facebook is booming because it’s a wonderful and useful Web site. But is also represents a ripe target for scammers.
Here’s how they operate. Let’s say you’ve signed up to play Farm Ville, a game produced by Zynga, a company in San Francisco. Each month some 63 million people play the game, in which you plant seeds and harvest cops. If you want to buy things in Farm Ville, like seeds or land, you can either earn points or buy points. To buy points, you send Zynga some money from your credit card. To earn points, you can click ads that promise points if you perform some task, like filling out a survey. You might take an “IQ quiz:, for example, and to get your score you must enter your cell-phone number. The scammers send a PIN to your cellphone, and you enter that PIN on a Web site. In the fine print, it says that by entering your PIN you are signing up to get a daily horoscope for $9.99 per month. Next time you get your phone bill, you’ve been stung.
An executive from Offerpal, one company that distributes these ads, claimed they\re totally legitimate. Two days after, however, Offerpal announced that its CEO and founder would be stepping down; the new CEO, George Garrick, posted a public statement admitting that ”regrettably, Offerpal has been guilty of distributing offers of questionable integrity.” Garrick vowed that the practice would stop.
Scam ads have been around for years, but Facebook users share personal data with the site, so scammers can create especially insidious ads, using software programs that insert your personal information – your name, the names of your friends- into the ads you see. So a naïve user might think the ads are just messages from Facebook, especially since scammers sometimes sue the same typefaces and colors Facebook does.
Better yet, scammers don’t need victims to hand over a credit-card number. All they need is a mobile-phone number. Guess who’s on Facebook? Millions of naïve teenagers who may not have credit-cards, but do have mobile phones. This whole business is evil. Facebook should put a stop to it.