Pay Per Call Affiliate Blackhat… ‘Decoy Tactic’

Affiliates and Affiliate managers may enjoy this insight into pay per call fraud.

It’s unfortunate, but in our business of managing affiliates we catch pay per call fraud almost on a daily basis.

We’ve seen ‘blackhat’ techniques seduce even the most innocent affiliate, from mom-at-home to grandpa.

Here’s how we catch them…

Our pay per call fraud team investigates every call and listens to every single call recording. Unfortunately, long practice has resulted in our team developing a very fine acuteness for pay per call fraud. This practice of reviewing calls has enabled us to catalog a long list of blackhat techniques. The one featured in this article is called the ‘Decoy Tactic’.

Every industry has it’s obvious flags, for example, we know that legitimate prospects of home improvement services ALWAYS want to get a price. A normal question is “how much is it going to cost me?” That’s usually the first and last question. There are very few exceptions to that rule. It’s an established ‘pattern’ of a legitimate call. We’ll use the home improvement category in our examples here.

When an affiliate sends calls to a home improvement campaign which do not result in the caller requesting a price, this raises the fraud flag. And since most pay-outs require the call to extend beyond a certain duration to qualify for payment, it is then a simple matter for the fraud team to determine what trick was used to get the call to extend beyond the minimum duration.

Some affiliates are very elaborate in their schemes. The pay per call blackhat Decoy Tactic is one that requires a bit of work. But not too much.

Blackhat pay per call affiliates know that they can’t simply send a batch of dummy calls to an advertiser. The  fraud is too obvious and the blackhat affiliate would get kicked out of the affiliate network.

To cover their tracks, the pay per call affiliate sends legitimate ad-driven calls to the advertisers. They arrive naturally like any other advertising, making the fraud slightly more difficult to detect.

However, this ‘legitimate’, inexpensive advertising, is of very  low quality, such as certain mobile click-to-call, SMS or misdial campaigns. Such a campaign results in many extremely short calls being pushed through to advertisers. They don’t convert, but that’s not the point. They are just the decoy. And these calls are cheap to produce (usually less than 15 cents per call).

Once the pay per call affiliate has created a bit of phone traffic, they then feel safe to slip in some junk. They organize calls that are systematically sculpted to extend beyond the minimum duration. These calls  are intended to be the payoff for the earlier decoy work. The calls are generated by friends, family, employees or the affiliates themselves.

Of course these people don’t want quotes, so they simply make ‘natural’ conversation, asking seemingly innocent questions until the minimum duration has been fulfilled. Some even get generous and talk for ten or fifteen minutes! But in the end, they refuse a quote and make some kind of excuse, such as “I have to speak with my spouse” or “I have a bad connection, I’ll call you back”. The list of excuses is endless. But when a price is not requested on a home improvement call, up goes the fraud flag and our fraud-detection blood hounds go to work.

The above Decoy Tactic certainly creates some smoke. But with the home improvement vertical it doesn’t matter. Anyone who owns a home knows that if they call a flooring or roofing contractor to get a price, the contractor is going to need to come out to the house to see it and measure things up. That’s how most home improvement trades work. And legitimate buyers have no problem with this. So when a caller breaks this pattern, the fraud comes to light.

The Decoy Tactic is used by many blackhat affiliates, in my opinion, especially by those who have been previously been booted from networks for being too obvious in their schemes. They come back in under a new name (wife, brother, dead relative, etc) and try again.

I’ve explained how the Decoy Tactic is exposed  for the home improvement vertical, but it can be just as easy to spot for other industries. There are certain patterns of a legitimate call that are impossible to emulate by fraud. As affiliate managers, it is our job to be attuned to these patterns and invest in the necessary policing of campaigns in order to spot the fraud.

By the way, if you are a pay per call affiliate and are  tempted to call your promo numbers yourself, or if you’d like to ‘organize’ calls for a home improvement campaign, here’s how to get away with it…

Make sure that whoever makes the call is, a) the owner of the home (advertisers will check), and b) is willing to go through with the entire quote process, which will include someone coming out to see the home. Anything less than this will result in the fraud-flag going up the pole. It will either be caught when reviewing the initial  phone call, or within a couple days of the call when it becomes impossible to reach the caller to confirm basic information.

If fraudsters spent the same amount of time developing a legitimate business instead of cooking up schemes to rob their advertisers, their businesses would have lasting value instead of temporary spikes which are not repeatable.

You can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin it once.

By Benny Traub

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