Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear from a reader wondering about the origins of a bogus credit card charge for $49.95 or some similar amount for a product they never ordered. As this post will explain, such charges appear to be the result of crooks trying to game various online affiliate programs by using stolen credit cards.
Most of these charges are associated with companies marketing products of dubious value and quality, typically by knitting a complex web of front companies, customer support centers and card processing networks. Whether we’re talking about a $49.95 payment for a bottle of overpriced vitamins, $12.96 for some no-name software title, or $9.84 for a dodgy Internet marketing program, the unauthorized charge usually is for a good or service that is intended to be marketed by an online affiliate program.
Affiliate programs are marketing machines built to sell a huge variety of products or services that are often of questionable quality and unknown provenance. Very often, affiliate programs are promoted using spam, and the stuff pimped by them includes generic prescription drugs, vitamins and “nutriceuticals,” and knockoff designer purses, watches, handbags, shoes and sports jerseys.
At the core of the affiliate program is a partnership of convenience: The affiliate managers handle the boring backoffice stuff, including the customer service, product procurement (suppliers) and order fulfillment (shipping). The sole job of the “affiliates” — the commission-based freelance marketers who sign up to promote whatever is being sold by the affiliate program — is to drive traffic and sales to the program.
THE NEW FACE OF SPAM
It is no surprise, then, that online affiliate programs like these often are overrun with scammers, spammers and others easily snagged by the lure of get-rich-quick schemes. In June, I began hearing from dozens of readers about unauthorized charges on their credit card statements for $49.95. The charges all showed up alongside various toll-free 888- numbers or names of customer support Web sites, such as supportacr[dot]com and acrsupport[dot]com. Readers who called these numbers or took advantage of the chat interfaces at these support sites were all told they’d ordered some kind of fat-burning pill or vitamin from some random site, such as greenteahealthdiet[dot]com or naturalfatburngarcinia[dot]com.
Those sites were among tens of thousands that are being promoted via spam, according to Gary Warner, chief technologist at Malcovery, an email security firm. The Web site names themselves are not included in the spam; rather, the spammers include a clickable URL for a hacked Web site that, when visited, redirects the user to the pill shop’s page. This redirection is done to avoid having the pill shop pages indexed by anti-spam filters and other types of blacklists used by security firms, Warner said. Continue reading →