MAD Monday

How would you feel if I arranged with your employer to pay me a portion of your pay check every month? You wouldn’t know who I am, you wouldn’t know why I am doing this, you would just see a portion of what you were earning simply disappear. Now you could ask your employer what is going on, but don’t expect anything more than a seemingly worried look and a polite pointer to the door.

Affiliate marketers who unknowingly clash with fraudsters have been experiencing something similar to this scenario. One month an affiliate can happily be earning whatever it is that he/she earns and the next month they suddenly see their earnings drop substantially. Sure, markets change, people shift gears and the money goes somewhere else. But every now and again a fraudster enters the scene and there’s trouble.

I call affiliates that use unscrupulous techniques to steal earnings from legitimate affiliates “fraudsters” but they call themselves “blackhats”. A legitimate affiliate simply can’t compete with these guys. Sprinkled amongst the back patting and boasting about six figure incomes in their secret forums these guys share a lot of knowledge with each other. Every now and again a newbie asks if what they are doing is illegal, responses are typically along the lines of

It’s not illegal bro, just smart

They don’t seem to realise that there are people out there that make an honest living from affiliate marketing. It’s these people that they are stealing their earnings from. Fortunately, sooner or later someone does do something about these kinds of people: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA V SHAWN D. HOGAN. See page 6, line 11 (just under the Cookie Stuffing header)

17. As set forth more fully below, beginning on a date unknown to the Grand Jury, but no later than in or about mid-2005, and continuing to in or about June 2007, in the Northern District of California and elsewhere, the defendant, SHAWN D. HOGAN, did knowingly devise and intend to devise, an did participate in, a material scheme and artifice to defraud, and to obtain money and property by means of materially false, misleading, and fraudulent pretenses, representations, omissions, and promises, which scheme and artifice is summarized below.

18. It was part of the scheme and artifice that, through various means, the defendant disseminated on a large number of web pages computer code that, when those web pages were viewed by a computer user, was designed to cause that computer to make a request to eBay’s home page merely for the purpose of prompting eBay’s servers to serve up a cookie, which would then be “stuffed” onto the user’s computer. These cookies contained information that identified an Affiliate ID of Digital Point Solutions. In such situations, the human user never actually clicked on an eBay advertisement or link on Hogan’s affiliate websites.

It’s been a while since a large affiliate marketer has been in trouble.

Are you an Amazon affiliate marketer? If so, you may be seeing a sudden drop in earnings and here are some of the reasons why:

Each of the Google ads above is potentially stealing earnings from legitimate Amazon affiliate marketers. These ads target popular sites all over the world. Just the fact that they are being displayed means that they are doing what they intended (drop cookies on unsuspecting users).  A sample packet trace from loading an ad is here. Note the Flash banner, the requests for images that redirect through 302s and secure HTTP sessions, this makes it incredibly tricky for investigators to get to the bottom of things.

As can be seen from the packet trace, if you saw these banners, you most likely visited Amazon in the background via an affiliate link. The next time you buy something from Amazon (within a certain amount of time — typically 7 days), the fraudster behind the ads will be paid a commission and not the legitimate affiliate marketer who may have sent you there previously.

For a quick summary of what I am talking about, take the red text from a few paragraphs above and replace the word “eBay” with “Amazon”.