Online voting contests are a hugely effective digital marketing strategy. Ninety-eight percent of consumers who participate in an online voting contest share their participation to get votes, and 46 percent of users who vote convert to followers of the brand, according to recent research we’ve conducted at Easypromos, a global leader in digital promotions.

However, with high-stakes prizes often ranging from hot event tickets to the latest top-selling tech gadgets and even modeling contracts, we’ve seen that they can also be a target for fraudsters looking for an easy win or to turn a quick profit.

Couple that with an estimated 170 million fake Facebook accounts online, according to a Huffington Post article from May of last year, and you have a veritable treasure trove of fraud opportunities.

Despite implementing strict measures to protect against the practice of vote selling, we’d consistently been contacted by clients who were concerned that fraudulent practices were still taking place within their voting contests, and that it was negatively impacting their brand’s image and relations with important consumer audiences as contest participants suspected others were gaining votes unfairly. They were seeing, for example, surges in votes in a short time, or all at once, or votes being cast from other countries.

While fraudulent practices are an exception, and not the rule within voting practices, we suspected that previously sufficient fraud controls were being outsmarted. It was time to get our hands dirty, and venture into the dark, seedy world of online vote sellers.

The Ruse:

In January of 2016, we launched a fake voting contest, and hired a freelancer to pose as a contest participant seeking a way to buy votes in order to win. We easily researched via Google search individuals that promise to sell online votes and guarantee a win in an online voting contest. These individuals were based in five different regions of the world, including Mexico, India and even our home country of Spain.

Then, we sat back and watched as the fake votes started rolling in, tracking behavior and noting consistent patterns.

Here is what we learned:

  • Hundreds of Stolen and Fake Facebook Accounts Are At Their Fingertips: Many vote sellers have access to hundreds, if not more, stolen or fake Facebook accounts whose profiles were obtained through phishing – or fraudulently obtaining access to someone’s account by tricking them into agreeing through fake contests and offers. Vote sellers can also buy 1000 fake Facebook accounts online for around $65, which they can reuse over and over on different contests.
  • Vote Sellers Aren’t Hiding – and They’re Cheap: Every vote seller was immediately responsive to our outreach and all agreed to produce 500 votes supporting our submission to the voting contest for roughly $75. Of note, three of those sellers accepted our money and only produced a small fraction of what was paid for, without any offer to refund money after the contest closed.
  • Voting Can be Manual or Machine: While believe it or not, there are still people in the world who will accept little to no money to manually log into hundreds of fake and stolen accounts to submit a vote for a contest, vote sellers have also gotten savvy by building voting engines which can streamline the casting of fake votes to a voting contests.
  • Tricking the Fraud Controls: Vote sellers have also cracked the code in outsmarting existing filters. Voting engines are programmed as to stagger votes over a period of time to not arouse suspicion. Further, the fake and stolen Facebook accounts they are using are often verified accounts which do not trip any red flags without closer review. They are also using software that can change the IP address for each vote, making it even more difficult to prove the vote is fraudulent.

So what can companies do to identify, manage and prevent fraud within their voting contest?

  • Use a digital marketing platform. While it appears easy to launch a voting contest right on a Facebook timeline, for example, using standard social network features such as likes, reactions, favorites or retweets as voting mechanisms were designed for users to express feelings for a post, not vote, and are not supported by anti fraud systems.
  • Use Terms & Conditions to communicate antifraud measures. Ensure participants agree to Terms & Conditions, which are provided by most digital marketing platforms, before they are able to vote in the contest. Within the rules, note that it is within your right to disqualify a participant based on suspicious voting activity.
  • Never give the prize to the most voted user. By choosing among participants who obtained the top five highest number of votes using a sweepstakes or jury, marketers can dissuade “bad practices” as potential fraudsters will see that the highest number of votes will not guarantee a win. This should also be communicated within the Terms & Conditions.
  • Disqualify only after the contest ends. Disqualifying a participant based on suspected fraudulent practices during a contest could trigger backlash, for example casting fake votes for other winners to disqualify them. Notify them of disqualification after the contest has ended to protect other contest participants.
  • Use the right anti-fraud technology. Be sure to use a system to detect IP changing software, CAPTCHA and double opt-in systems to prevent vote automation. The Easypromos Fraud Index also offers a probability that a participant’s votes were obtained in a fraudulent way based on an alert system built on consistent fraudulent patterns we identified undercover.

While there will always be people in the world looking to make a fast buck or an easy win, a little bit of vigilance by the contest host can go a long way to limiting exposure. By better understanding how vote selling works, we and others in the industry can continue to monitor changing patterns and modify controls so companies and brands can continue to benefit from the increased reach, page views and follower conversion.