Facebook spammers make $200m just posting links
Italian researchers uncover price lists for posting third-party links to Facebook fan pages – and calculate that they earn substantial amounts for most popular ones
Spammers posting links on Facebook fan pages to send people to third-party scam sites are earning $200m every year, according to calculations by a team of Italian security researchers who have investigated hundreds of thousands of posts on the social network.
Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli, the leaders of the group, analyzed pages across the network, and identified spam through the use of phrases such as “Hey click here for a free iPhone” followed by links to sites outside the network.
They also discovered sites where spammers offer to set up fake fan pages in order to tempt Facebook users to click on links.
The postings breach Facebook’s terms of service, which says that “third-party advertisements on [fan] Pages are prohibited without our prior permission.” But trying to catch and get rid of the spammers is a growing problem for Facebook. The revenue that the spammers – and those running the sites linked to – do not form part of Facebook’s revenue, but instead piggyback on the success of the social network, which now has more than a billion users worldwide.
The URLs to the outside sites have their destination hidden by using legitimate link-shortening services such as Tinyurl.com or bit.ly. That also makes it possible for researchers to track the ultimate destination – and figure out how many people click on the link.
About 9% of the pages that users were directed to by spammers instead use Google’s AdSense – meaning that Google inadvertently gets a cut from the money being made by the buyers of spam services.
Long term business
In looking into Facebook spam, the researchers found posts offering to sell spam links on Facebook fan pages dating back to 2010. But on the present-day forums, they found spammers’ prices for posting to pages which already had more than 30,000 “Likes” – and so would be likely to show up in peoples’ News feeds, or be regularly visited – varied from $8 to $20. For pages with over 100,000 Likes, the prices ranged from $35 to $100.
“Third parties pay spammers to post their links on Facebook pages, to reach the largest amount of users possible,” said De Micheli. For the financial model to work, the third parties must be accruing benefits even greater than they are paying the spammers – though it is impossible to know what their rate of return might be.
“We notice that it is rather common for the landing page [from a link] to be a product on an e-commerce site made to monetize quickly rather than to generate traffic on a home page,” De Micheli said. “Links to YouTube can be used to generate views, and so money – view generation on YouTube is a fast-growing market.” YouTube offers revenue-sharing arrangements with a number of users.
Another outside site identified by the researchers promises that some people who post affiliate links – which pay an intermediary small amounts for click throughs to the main site – are getting paid “thousands of dollars per day”.
According to their analysis, around one in eight of the pages they looked at was actually harboring spam links.
Facebook action
Facebook takes action against spam pages and posts where they are reported by users, but the sheer volume of spam postings could overwhelm its checkers’ ability to crack down on spam.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Protecting the people who use Facebook is a top priority for us, and we have developed a number of automated systems to identify potentially harmful links and stop them from spreading. Those systems quickly spotted these links, and we are working to clear them from the site now.
“In the meantime, we have been blocking people from clicking through the links and have reported the bad browser extensions to the appropriate parties. We believe only a small percentage of our users were affected by this issue, and we are currently working with them to ensure that they’ve removed the bad browser extension. We will keep improving our systems to ensure that people continue to have a safe experience on Facebook.”