Scammers have found a way to trick consumers into giving away personal information and money through a scheme that promises free gift card codes from high-profile retailers such as Google, Apple, eBay, Amazon and Microsoft, according to researchers at Kaspersky Lab.
At the same time, the bad actors behind the fraudulent gift card generator sites try to skirt around the laws around fraud or phishing by not being the actual entity that takes the data or money, the researchers said in a post on the company's SecureList blog. Instead, the owners of the code generator sites act as the middlemen in the transaction, redirecting the consumers to a partner network that then separates the users from their information. Those owning the generator sites get money from their partners for clicks or for information those partners were able to harvest.
However, "the upshot is unpleasant, but predictable: the victim is either led around various partner sites until they tire of filling out forms and playing lotteries, or they are rewarded with a random set of symbols that has nothing to do with a real code and only mimics the format," Lyubov Nikolenko, web content analyst at Kaspersky, wrote in the blog, adding that at legitimate code generation sites such as TokenFire and Swagbucks, users have to pay to have gift card codes generated.
"By contrast, generator sites look far more appealing, since they require very little. But as our research shows, that is because they give even less in return -- nothing in fact, besides dashed expectations," Nikolenko added.
The gift card generator scheme tends to play on the same emotions that many phishing efforts do -- essentially the desire of many to get something for little to no cost, which can entice them to give away personal information, Nikolenko told Security News in an email. (See Phishing Attacks Are Increasing & Gaining in Sophistication.)
"Such scams prey on children, on people from regions where bank cards are not very common, on the poor and under-educated," Nikolenko said.
The scheme works by offering consumers a way to get a gift card codes for free to such sites as iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. The code generating sites offers users cards of any value for such services, though there's no explanation for why the code is being offered for free. At the same time, some sites offer fraudulent positive customer reviews.
The system begins what users believe is the code generation -- Nikolenko calls this the "hacking" -- when they select a gift card on the site. However, the consumers can't get all of the code they can confirm that they are not a robot, which is done by clicking on a link and completing a task, which can range from taking a survey and playing a lottery to providing personal information (like a phone number or address), subscribing to a paid SMS service or installing adware.
That in turn redirects all user searches and harvests data on the users' online activities, and can be difficult to delete.
The nature of the task is determined by the partner network that owns the site to which the user was redirected, and that network is based on where the consumer is located around the globe, according to Kaspersky researchers. They noted that legitimate sites and services -- such as loyalty programs -- that offer discounts and gift cards in exchange for points earned or purchases made in partner stores.
"Today, point reward programs are everywhere," Nikolenko said. "But I don't believe the growth of legitimate ways to earn gift cards will curb the scams altogether any time soon. After all, when you run a legitimate business, you have to compensate your users with actual rewards. It's less risky but also less profitable. There will always be people who will not be able to resist a chance to make some money out of thin air."
Kaspersky researchers were able to find examples of such schemes going as far back as 2012, adding that they may have been around longer.
"During the past couple of years, it feels that they've really gained traction," Nikolenko said. "A fake gift card scheme is indeed pretty easy to run, but it's far less profitable than a simple credit card or banking login theft. The scammers seem to be relying on more 'moral' means to earn on people's naivete by running them through partner networks that offer lotteries, paid subscriptions, freemium games, customer surveys, etc. They rarely resort to personal information theft or actual viruses... But it's very likely we'll see more and more such scams in the future -- unless, of course, we manage to nip it in the bud by raising awareness of them."
Users can protect themselves by checking the HTTPS connection and domain name when opening a webpage -- especially those involving sensitive personal data, such as online banking and shopping -- never giving out sensitive data, not sending questionable links to friends, checking with companies to ensure the gift card codes are theirs, and using reliable security solutions.
In addition, "remember that there is no such thing as free, and always treat offers that seem too tempting to be true with skepticism," Nikolenko said. "Legitimate reward businesses always make it clear that you'll have to make some effort, earn a certain (usually three-digit or bigger) amount of points before you can earn a gift. They will never declare that they share gift codes for nothing, out of the goodness of their hearts or as a protest against capitalist society."