My disillusioned dream of becoming rich: Decoding scamming video ads on Google and YouTube

Auteur
Elbasan Krasniqi, étudiant du MAS LCE
Thématique
Cybercriminalité et nouvelle technologie

Many of us view the internet as a reservoir of trusted and reliable information, especially the younger generations. Yet, beneath its glittering surface lies an obscure underworld of deception and scams. I remember when I was 17 years old, with a high school buddy we had one dream; to become rich, and very quickly. I know you are going to say “Well, who doesn’t?”. So, we did what millions of people do; we headed to the only place on Earth able to help us reach our lifetime goal: Google. There, we started searching “How to become rich quickly”. At that moment, when google showed us millions of results, our naivety was effortlessly transported to another dimension, leading us to believe that we would become filthy rich in a very short time. Afterwards we dove deep into captivating results, and watched numerous videos of individuals explaining, to those willing to believe, that they had stumbled upon the ultimate secret, that they had discovered the Holy Grail of all secrets: how to become rich just by snapping your fingers. We decided to reach out to some of these people and we received dozens of answers back. All of them asked us to pay some amount, ranging from CHF 49.- to CHF 299.-, in order to access the key to vast wealth. However, for two high school guys with very little money, we had to be tight and find a solution to reach our early retirement plan without spending a dime. Suddenly, the Gods of the riches turned on our side and sent us the person who would help us get one step closer to our goal.

Before I go on, let me ask, how many of you pay attention to the video ads, popping up in the middle of your YouTube playlist? Or perhaps, while you are shopping online, a google video ad appears in the corner of your screen with a person yelling “Do you want to know how I generate a side revenue of X thousands of CHF?” catching you off guard, because you left the volume of your computer on maximum and it’s difficult to find the exit button to close it?

Google is known to be the number one search engine and online advertising. In order to gain market shares in the online advertising industry, on November 13, 2006, Google Inc. announced the acquisition of the mainstream consumer media company, YouTube, for USD 1.65 Billions1Gabriel Stricker. « Google Closes Acquisition of YouTube », 13 November 2006.   https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1288776/000119312506238320/dex991.htm. Viewed on 21.08.2023.. We have all watched a YouTube video at least once and most likely contributed to increasing the revenue from Google or YouTube ads. The revenue estimated in 2022 of USD 224.47 billion for Google2Bianchi Tiago. « Google: Advertising Revenue 2022 | Statista », 24 February 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/266249/advertising-revenue-of-google/. Viewed on 21.08.2023.. It is very easy to buy a Google or YouTube ad and content checks are not very efficient. This is why online scammers and other web stealers find a lot of potential on the web to attract us for the next million-dollar idea. It is difficult to put an accurate number on how many ads on Google or YouTube are fraudulent, but the statistics from cheq.com suggest 14.08% are click frauds and ad frauds3Sanja Trajcheva. « The Ultimate List of Click Fraud Statistics 2023 », 12 March 2023. https://cheq.ai/blog/click-fraud-statistics-2023/.. Viewed on 21.08.2023..

Back to my story. From all the people who got back to us, one did not ask for any money (for the moment) and agreed to share with us the great secret of generating an easy revenue of minimum CHF 5’000.- per month. The big surprise for us was that this person was living less than 15km from us. After a brief email exchange, he gave us his personal address and a time to meet up. I still remember, me and my buddy were already thinking of dropping out of high school after all the money we were going to make effortlessly. Some of you would probably say, we should have thought of the dangers involved with meeting up with a random person from the internet but we were fearless 17 years old, shaped like dockers. Therefore, not even potential dangers would get in our way to reach the promised land where money flows. Then, the day of truth arrived so we went to meet with our Croesus from the video posted on Google. When we arrived at the address, we saw an old Volvo parked in front of small normal house. Nothing fancy! So, my buddy and I looked at each other, thinking maybe our Croesus does not want to show off with luxury cars and a big house. Nonetheless after our host opened the door, seemingly waiting for us with impatience, we went inside. He was probably thinking that we were two young guys who are easy to scam. Sat in his kitchen, we started talking with him, or I should say answering questions from a somewhat official paper where the “important” things to ask us were structured and typed professionally. After a couple of minutes, my buddy looked at me, and I could sense disappointment in his eyes. Some efforts were going to be needed here. Also, we would each have to spend CHF 160.- to buy a starter kit.

Let us quickly pause here. The process explained to us by the man, who was nothing close to Croesus, was a classical Ponzi scheme4James Check. « Ponzi Schemes: Definition, Examples, and Origins », 27 May 2023 https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/ponzischeme.asp. Viewed on 21.08.2023. . He was pretending to work for Herbalife, an American company that pushes people to sell to friends and family, food supplements, to lose weight and get in good shape5Herbalife UK. « Is Herbalife a Pyramid Scheme? | Herbalife UK », 20 August 2023. https://www.herbalife.co.uk/faq/is-herbalife-a-pyramid-scheme/. Viewed on 21.08.2023.. He told us that the more people we convince to join our team, the more money we would make. Surprisingly, the company is still up and running today, even though it had encountered some legal issues6Nate Raymond. « Herbalife Hit with Investor Lawsuit over “pyramid” Claims | Reuters ». Newspaper, 15 April 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-herbalife-lawsuit-idUKBREA3E06820140415. Viewed on 21.08.2023.. Before I come to the end of my story, you must understand that these video ads, which we all see posted everywhere on the internet, follow a simple sales and marketing process. Engaging Opener: they will often begin with a lavish lifestyle, luxury cars, mansions, and exotic vacations. This serves to grab the viewer’s attention and build an image of success. Storytelling: the people on these videos will share a personal story of how they were once in a tough situation (debt, jobs they hated), but then found a “secret” that changed their lives. The Promise: this is the part where they guarantee that their method or system can help anyone (yes, including you) make a lot of money quickly. Testimonials: these are used to back up their claims. However, it is essential to remember you can rent luxury cars for a day and sometimes they come as a package with a luxury house to pretend you made it in this life. Finally, Call to Action: this is when they will either offer a product, a seminar, or some material that holds the “key” to this wealth. They will usually offer it at a “discounted” price or if you are lucky for “free”, but there will always be a catch at some point7Get Rich Quick Gurus: The Truth. Video, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJx_SZnpZpw. Viewed on 21.08.2023. .

In my story, all the above-mentioned points here were checked from our scammer’s list. Then came the moment for us to pay the CHF 160.- to obtain our starter kit, which we did. I can tell you one thing, I never used that kit. I still have the box somewhere in my basement to remind myself that anything that seems too good to be true is most likely a scam. The other thing I learned from that experience is, to start a business or to make money, you need to spend more than CHF 160.-, so from now on I am wary of anyone requesting a small amount of money in exchange for millions.

Note that, at some point, I did my due diligence but, as most people who got scammed, I did it at the wrong time. My high school buddy and I each lost CHF 160.-, but we learned a lesson which probably saved us from losing more money in the end. Even though, our pride took a hard hit.

As you can guess, we never became millionaires from the video ads we watched on the internet.

How to not fall for an online scam advertisement when you see one?

Avoiding online scams requires a combination of skepticism, caution, and awareness. Here are some tips to help you avoid falling for online scam advertisements. Please keep in mind that the list here is not exhaustive.

First point: be very skeptical of unrealistic offers you see, and this is not only for online cases. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers often use attractive offers to lure people into their schemes, especially Ponzi schemes, such as my story, where my friend and I were told we would make big money without even working. We should have thought twice.

Second point: simply check the Website URL. It will confirm the legitimacy of the website. Pay attention to whether the website’s address is misspelled or if it uses a different domain extension.

Third point: look for an HTTPS address, as legitimate websites use HTTPS to secure your connection. If a website does not have https:// in the URL, be vigilant about entering personal information, especially when shopping online.

Fourth point:, research the company, this is simple to do nowadays. Look for reviews and information about the company before making any purchases. Legitimate businesses will have a history, reviews, and a physical address.

Fifth point: beware of pop-up ads. Avoid clicking on pop-up ads, especially those that prompt you to enter personal information or download something. Legitimate companies typically do not use aggressive pop-ups.

Sixth point: be cautious with personal information. Never share personal and sensitive information like your credit card details, or passwords in response to unsolicited emails or advertisements8P. A. Whitty. « The Psychology of Scams: Provoking and Committing Errors of Judgement». United Kingdoms May 2009: Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, May 2009. Viewed on 23.12.2023., 9Lynn Collen, Faisal S. Alsubaei, Abdullah Abuhussein, Suhaib Al-Rousan « Ads-guard: Detecting scammers in online classified ads », Australia, 2020. IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence (SSCI) 2020. Viewed on 07.01.2024..

Point seven: always verify payment methods and always use secure payment methods. Avoid, if possible, wire transfers or sending money via methods that do not offer buyers protection. Always avoid and click on the red cross when asked to transfer money via Ria, MoneyGram, Western Union, and the others. This is always a red flag that you are being scammed. Legitimate businesses usually accept credit cards and other secure payment methods10DUCOMMUN-DIT-VERRON Valérie, « Romance scam », Votre Police – Conseils et prestations des polices vaudoises, 11.12.2023, https://votrepolice.ch/cybercriminalite/romance-scam/, Viewed on 13.01.2024..

Point eight: watch out for red flags in emails, such as spelling and grammar mistakes, generic greetings, or urgent requests for personal information. Legitimate companies usually communicate professionally, and they will never ask for your personal data by email as they should already have it.

Point nine: use antivirus software to keep your computer and devices protected. This can help prevent malicious software that scammers may use to target you.

Finally, point ten: educate yourself and stay informed about common online scams and tactics. Knowledge is a powerful tool in recognizing and avoiding potential threats. Trust your instincts, if something feels off or too good to be true. It is better to be safe and investigate further than to fall victim to a scam. By staying vigilant and following these guidelines, you can significantly reduce the risk of falling for online scam advertisements. And if still in doubt, seek advice from friends, family, or online communities before taking action.

In conclusion

This narrative article dissected the anatomy of online scam advertisements, from engaging openers to tear-jerking testimonials and promises of unimaginable riches. The process of online scam advertisements is almost Shakespearean in its tragicomic brilliance. The grand finale is our personal contribution to the annals of wealth-seeking endeavors. A box of dreams gathering dust in the basement. But fear not, dear reader, for in this cautionary tale lies a roadmap to salvation. From being skeptical of offers that practically scream “too good to be true” to double-checking website URLs and dodging aggressive pop-ups, I present a guide to surviving the digital serpent pit. Let this saga be a testament to the wisdom gained: a humble offering to future generations navigating the tumultuous seas of online scam advertisements. In conclusion, let us raise a virtual toast to the folly of youth, the audacity of online scammers, and the enduring resilience of the human spirit that learns, adapts, and hopefully does not click on that ad promising overnight riches. May the digital winds be ever in your favor!

Use of Chat GPT to reformulate certain sentences and for proofreading my article.