Scammers gaming YouTube ratings for profit

Spyware researcher says scammers are inflating the popularity of videos on YouTube and other sharing sites, often as a lure to Web sites loaded with malicious programs

The half-minute-long commercial for energy drink IRN-BRU on YouTube isn't all that original or really very funny. All the same, the clip "R0049_TDAU8" garnered 113 million hits and received a five-star review, with more than 70,000 visitors giving the clip the popular video site's highest content approval rating. (Editor's note: the file has since been removed from YouTube.)

Is it a victory for bad taste? No. In fact, YouTube's user-generated "Comments & Responses" area is filled with messages wondering how the clip -- which parodies a woman giving birth to a can of fizzy beverage -- was even flagged as interesting in the first place.

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The credit for the success of the clip, researchers say, lies with schemers who are gaming the online voting systems used by content-sharing networks to serve their own ends, including the spread of malicious software and adware, according to Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard University and longtime Internet fraud researcher.

Scammers have created sophisticated programs that mimic legitimate YouTube traffic and provide automated feedback for videos and other content they wish to promote, said Edelman.

In other cases, scammers merely purchase the traffic from companies who have developed a cottage industry in providing artificial Web site visits, he said.

By either method, schemers are corrupting the systems used to drive much of the content pushed to the most popular areas of YouTube and similar sites, Edelman said. In the process, they are also lowering the value of the multimedia portals and finding ways to line their own pockets.

"YouTube is actually the victim in this case, as videos that aren't really that great end up in the 'Most Viewed' or 'Top Rated' categories, and people look at those and it impacts their perceptions of the site," Edelman said. "But it also makes you wonder what steps these types of sites are taking to prevent this sort of thing, as we're only seeing this now because scammers are getting so greedy that it's become noticeable."

According to the researcher, who is based at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., the YouTube energy drink clip in question was probably pumped up by a combination of paid traffic and a malicious program that forces people's browsers to secretly imprint the site as they go about their normal Web browsing.

The paid traffic is provided by any one of a number of companies, such as Buyhitscheap.com, that offer Web traffic for a fee. Individuals at Buyhitsheap.com did not respond to efforts by InfoWorld to speak with someone regarding the traffic pumping issue. The Web site is registered through DomainsByProxy.com of Scottsdale, Ariz. (Slogan "Your identity is nobody's business but ours.")

The malicious programs automatically refresh infected browsers to continually increase traffic to a specific piece of content.

Connections between the videos pumped up through phony traffic and Web sites that distribute the malicious software are common. For example, automatic refresh programs were one of many malicious programs being pushed from Youtubevideodownloader.com, a Web page profiling the person who posted the energy drink commercial on YouTube. When YouTube caught on to that ruse, the individual changed his log-in to banned_commercials and linked from the videos to a different URL that distributed the same malicious programs, Edelman said.

"Whoever is responsible for this has created a circle of scams all predicated on the counterfeit traffic they can create at YouTube or some other user-driven content site," Edelman said. "At first it might seem like they are trying to simply get their video to the top of the site for promotional purposes, but it's just as likely that they really just want to trick people into visiting their malware or adware sites."

Representatives for the company whose product is advertised in the commercial, Scotland-based IRN-BRU, didn't return calls seeking comment, and several days after Edelman first highlighted the video clip to InfoWorld, it appears to have been removed from YouTube.

Media representatives with the multimedia site, owned by search giant Google, refused to comment on the energy drink commercial specifically, but indicated that battling such schemes to distort its ratings systems remains an ongoing task.

"We are continually developing safeguards to secure the statistics on YouTube and recently updated video ratings, so it now is very difficult to fake a high rating or force someone else to get a low rating," the company said in a statement.

"When it comes to our attention that someone has rigged their numbers to gain placement on the top pages, we remove the video or channel from public view; we are continuously updating the product to provide accurate view, rating and subscription numbers and to prevent our community from being affected by malicious programs."

YouTube officials did not offer any specific steps the company has taken to help combat malware programs and other ill-gotten traffic.

The Web has long been known as an effective medium for malicious attacks, but the problem of people gaming YouTube and other user content-driven, or Web 2.0, sites is only beginning to rear its head, and it's an issue that the companies backing such portals must take seriously as they look into the future.

As more Internet users begin to turn to "user-generated content" for untarnished reviews and insights, YouTube and other Web 2.0 portals begin offering greater financial incentives for people to post popular content, said Joe Laszlo, an analyst at Jupiter Research in New York.

"This is a nascent issue, but one that YouTube and the rest of the user-generated content sites need to confront now, as so much of the Web 2.0 concept is built around the idea of trusting the community to help make judgments about content's quality," said Laszlo. "These types of scams call into question how reliable the community aspect of Web 2.0 really is, and if these types of sites becomes susceptible to a lot of tricks, and content that people don't really want to see gets surfaced, people will question their value."

News Web site Digg.com recently encountered a similar problem after it was exposed that people were paying others to log on and prop up traffic for their content. In another incident, mobs of Digg users forced stories containing a protected decryption key for DVDs to the top of the site's most popular stories, despite efforts by site administrators to block the publication of the key.

Such schemes to pump up user-generated content will grow as quickly as wider audiences tap into such Web 2.0 sites, the analyst said.

And, as sites such as YouTube begin offering money to content providers who can pass along clips that drive hits, more people will be encouraged to try and cheat the ratings systems and somehow cash in.

"Right now, YouTube and most of these other sites are still about building an audience for something, but in the next several years, these sites will begin sharing more of the advertising revenue with content providers, which will create even greater incentives to grow traffic," Laszlo said. "This gaming is still a scattered issue versus a plague, and these companies can still handle the problem manually; but if these companies cannot develop technological means to deal with it as its grows, it will eat away at this notion of community and aggregate wisdom that these sites are trying to promote."

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