RiskIQ released a research report revealing a large-scale digital scam advertisement campaign spread through fraudulent news sites and affiliate ad networks that cater to highly partisan audiences.
Scammers are taking advantage of COVID-19 to spread fake news
The report details how misleading, false, and inflammatory news stories about the COVID-19 pandemic are developed on a massive scale by “content farms,” which monetize through ads served by ad networks targeting highly partisan readership. Some of these ads are purpose-built to lure readers into misleading ‘subscription traps’ for products billed as remedies or cures for the virus.
How does a subscription trap work?
A subscription trap works by offering a free or deeply discounted trial of a product while hiding clauses in the terms of service that sign victims up for costly payments remitted on a repeated basis, usually monthly. These subscriptions are often difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
The report clearly defines an ecosystem between partisan content farms that monetize through ad revenue, ad networks that take a cut of the profit, and advertisers that use the generated traffic to ensnare victims in subscription traps. These traps fraudulent subscriptions are for products such as dietary supplements or beauty products, and more recently, supposed remedies to COVID-19 in the form of CBD oil.
“Scam ads leading to subscription traps seem to be endemic to content farm sites, but there’s a particular network of companies and individuals using the COVID-19 pandemic for financial gain,” said Jordan Herman, threat researcher, RiskIQ.
“We wanted to do a deep dive into this ecosystem to expose how these shady practices are taking advantage of people on a massive scale and making the schemers a lot of money in the process.”
Leveraging fear, anxiety, and uncertainty around COVID-19
These content farms generate traffic by creating politically charged articles leveraging the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty around COVID-19 and gearing them toward a specific audience. These articles, often misleading or patently false, target readers the creators have assessed will likely read, share, and engage with them.
The content farm operators publish these articles on their websites, which use social media accounts and spam email campaigns to further their reach and generate more traffic they can monetize.