opinion

A Guide to Avoiding Scams in Hard Link Media Buying

A Guide to Avoiding Scams in Hard Link Media Buying

‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So cautionary wisdom reminds us, yet people still get scammed all the time. Fortunately, there are “red flags” you can watch for to help you identify scams and thereby avoid them. “Too good to be true” is red flag No. 1. Below are five more ways to spot hard-link media buying scams, as well as other kinds of scams.

Watch for Inconsistencies

Another straightforward way to confirm site ownership is to have a hard-link seller place your link on the website temporarily.

A scammer may execute their con rigidly from a playbook, as in massive telemarketing scams, or they may be able to pivot and flawlessly improvise. The critical thing to remember is that when a scammer gets caught in a lie, they make the con bigger, in the process stacking up more vectors for verification — and thus additional red flags.

One such scammer, who went by “Jonathan,” recently stumbled into my inbox. Like James Veitch, famous for his TED Talks documenting the games he plays with scammers, I decided it was time to have some fun. At the risk of making more brilliant mice by building a better mousetrap, I’ll share some details.

Jonathan’s initial pitch wasn’t all that different from the legitimate ones: “Hey, I’m from this known — but not too well-known — website, and I want to sell you a link for this deal price.” However, there were multiple things “off” right from the start. I decided to focus on one: To lend his offer an air of legitimacy, Jonathan made unsubstantiated claims about other people buying the links and getting “great results.”

This was strange because hard links are generally sold on high-domain-authority websites for SEO value, not direct results. Even if buyers do get good results, it is impossible to attribute boosts in search results to any specific link — and even if it were possible, buyers would be unlikely to talk up the seller about how amazing the deal was, at the risk of causing the price to go up.

Watch for Lack of Transparency, Missing Links

Already, Jonathan’s pitch didn’t make sense, but the entertainment of chasing him down this rabbit hole was irresistible. So I played along, prodding him for examples of the “great results.” Immediately, the scam started to unravel.

“What proof? They’re listed on my site because they’re getting great results!” was his response. The supposed logic of that was baffling and backward, something he didn’t appreciate me pointing out. He tried to deflect and change the subject to how great he was at running links for his buyers.

Scammers will purposefully make transparency difficult, and be ready with multiple explanations for why transparency is impossible. Maybe a system is down, or someone is on vacation. A good rule to remember is that if the deal is real, it will still exist when that “issue” is resolved. Slow and steady wins the race.

Jonathan made no effort to help me verify his claims, and pushed back when I asked for anyone to vouch for him.

Watch for Pressure to Make a Decision Quickly

Time is money, and easy marks are highly profitable. But most scammers don’t have the patience for a “long con,” so pressuring you to decide quickly is the primary strategy used by tech support and banking telemarketing scammers. Making every engagement a “limited time offer” triggers “fear of missing out” (FOMO), and urgency prompts fear. Things like demanding money immediately or dismissing obvious benefits of simply waiting should alert you that something is amiss.

Jonathan didn’t like that I wasn’t immediately biting at his offer, but I was still replying. His response to my “slow and steady” was to drop the price. After that didn’t work, he pivoted to pressuring me by selling scarcity. He suddenly claimed he was running out of spots; only a few were left. Once again, he was promising results if only I would send the money now.

Sensing that his chance at a payday was slipping away, he lowered the price even more. He was now showing desperation to sell, which contradicted his initial pitch. If most people had been getting “great results,” he could command higher prices and not have to sell at lower.

His final strategic move was “the walk-away,” hoping to trigger more FOMO by saying he had others waiting to buy and didn’t have time for me to make up my mind. If someone is forcing urgency, it’s time to take a pause. As Richard Branson once said, business opportunities are like buses; another one will be along shortly.

Clarify, Verify, Confirm!

Jonathan claimed to have been in the industry for a “very long time.” He mentioned running “countless sites” in different niches, and claimed to have worked with “thousands of people.” Yet he didn’t mention any other websites by name and offered no references. The purposeful vagueness of his claims made them unverifiable.

Advertising networks make it very quick and easy to work with publishers, which takes the guesswork out of who is legitimate and who is not. Ultimately, it comes down to relationships and knowing whom you’re working with to ensure you don’t fall victim to scams like this. You must go to a verifiable or reputable source if you need to confirm legitimacy.

For example, you can be sure a specific advertising network is selling for a website because their ads are on that website. It is clear as day, and you can buy them at that network. That is your method of confirmation. If you are approached directly by a publisher, first make sure their email address is from the website’s domain or matches the email listed there.

Find Ways to Verify Facts Conclusively

Another straightforward way to confirm site ownership is to have a hard-link seller place your link on the website temporarily. When I asked Jonathan to place my link, he rudely refused, said he was “not here to prove anything” and insisted that I was already getting a link for a low price.

Veteran publishers don’t act like this. Sure, some publishers can be “challenging,” but ultimately they want to make money — and they know they’ll make more by fostering trust and a good relationship.

I made it so absurdly simple for Jonathan. I went to “his” website, filled out the contact form, then replied to his initial email and told him all he had to do was respond to the message I had just sent via his website form. It would take any legitimate publisher a minute to pass this test. Instead, Jonathan said: “Form submission is not handled by me, we have a different department.”

Most people would spot the “missing link” there. If his statement were true, Jonathan could contact that other department and have them reply to my email to help close the sale. But because Jonathan had no access to the website and no ability to respond to my message, he doubled down with, “You can trust me.” This reply was even more comical given that the website he claimed to be selling for states in black and white on its contact page that it doesn’t sell links! The lies had reached the point of ridiculousness.

That’s when I shifted gears and hit the gas. I asked for wire details, and quickly ascertained that the name on the offshore account was nowhere close to the alias Jonathan had been using. True, using an alias is not exactly a red flag in the adult industry, but I digress.

With wire details in hand, I told “Jonathan” that accepting a wire payment for advertising on a website he didn’t own would be wire fraud, and I asked for an invoice. That’s when his high-pressure sales tactics melted away. Suddenly he wanted to wait to do the deal, even though I was offering to pay right now. He knew that I knew, and I never heard from him again.

The final word came when the website owner replied to the message I had sent via the website form. I won’t lie: I did a happy dance when it showed up in my inbox.

“No, I am not affiliated with this guy,” it read. “And I unfortunately know a bunch of people that were already scammed.”

In deals where you don’t know the person on the other end and can’t rely on a trusted third party, your best defense against online scams is systematic due diligence like attempted with Jonathan, to assess the likelihood of the deal being legitimate. However, also pay attention to any “gut feeling” you get that something is wrong.

Your gut feeling is the culmination of your life experience, and it is there to protect you. Trust it — especially when the desire to do a deal or FOMO is strong. You may not be able to explain it, but if something feels off and you also detect multiple red flags like the ones listed above, that’s when you have to make them prove their claims. If they can’t or won’t, you need to walk away.

Juicy Jay is the CEO and founder of the JuicyAds advertising network, as well as the founder of Broker.xxx, which helps people buy and sell adult websites and businesses.

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