Online Survey Scams: How to Spot and Protect Yourself?

Online Survey Scams: How to Spot and Protect Yourself?
Graphic: Nathaniel Blum

Sheila Olson
January 3, 2020

If you’re looking for a side gig to earn some extra cash, the internet is a good place to start your search. You can sell your stuff, get paid to run errands, clip digital rebate coupons, and even complete online surveys for cash and prizes. Your earnings might not replace a steady paycheck, but they can supplement your income.

Some of these opportunities sound pretty compelling: “Earn $500 a week sitting at home answering survey questions.” Unfortunately, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Some companies do pay for consumers’ opinions from focus groups and questionnaires, but cash-for-answers offers are often really just online survey scams.

What are online survey scams?

Businesses conduct market research to help them develop new products and gain insights about existing products and services. Before the internet, businesses used in-person focus groups and telephone interviews to survey consumers.

The internet, however, gave businesses a quick and inexpensive way to contact a wide range of consumers; online surveys quickly became the preferred way for companies to conduct market research. The online survey industry grew 12% between 2014 and 2019 and generated $1 billion in revenue in 2019. Some experts believe the online survey industry will hit $7 billion by 2022.

Online survey scams take advantage of this legitimate trend in market research. These scams usually come in one of these forms:

  • You pay the scammer a “membership” fee in exchange for a training kit and exclusive access to paid survey opportunities that never materialize.
  • The scammer collects your personal information as part of the “survey qualification” process and then sells it to digital marketing companies or other potentially criminal organizations on the dark web.
  • The scammer sends you surveys designed to collect personal and financial details, which they then use to commit identity theft and financial fraud.

Dave Hatter, a cybersecurity consultant with inTrust IT, said nothing is free when it comes to online surveys. “If you’re not paying with cash, you’re paying with your data,” he said. “These surveys seem innocuous, but many are just malignant attempts to steal your information.”

How do online survey scams work?

Social media platforms are a favorite target of online survey scammers. One of the most successful survey scams involved bogus lifetime free-food passes at popular fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. Scammers posted the survey link on Facebook. Users who clicked the link were directed to a website that captured their personal data.

Facebook was the vehicle for another major online survey scam. Users were told they could get access to a new Facebook “dislike” button if they answered a few questions for a major retailer such as Kohl’s, Costco or Walmart. They would also receive a $50 store gift card if they qualified. People who clicked never received the promised reward—or the dislike button—but scammers collected their personal data and in some cases, planted malware on their devices.

The vast majority of online surveys are scams. A Ph.D. student at Northeastern University used machine learning to study the scope of the threat of online survey scams. He designed a tool that could fill out online surveys and identify ones that installed malware or adware or collected personal and financial information for use in financial fraud.

Of the 130,000 online surveys he tested, more than 90% proved to be illegitimate. About 70% of the survey publishers were associated with just 24 network addresses, most of them originating in Russia, eastern Europe and South America. This suggests many survey scams are centralized to a small number of criminals sharing the same infrastructure.

The researcher also found that more than 42% of online survey scams involved malware or spyware and 25% involved collecting payment details that were used to download adult content. The rest involved distributing malicious documents, capturing personal information and other types of scams.

Hatter said you need to be skeptical of every survey that asks for personal data. “No one is hiring programmers to create these surveys out of the goodness of their hearts. Every time you put out your personal data, it could be used against you. Even if the survey creator didn’t design it to be malicious, you have no idea who they will sell your information to and what that party will do with it,” he said.

4 signs of a bogus online survey

There are legitimate online surveys that pay you small amounts in cash or goods to participate. Most of these are by invitation only; you must fit the target demographic of the company conducting the research. You’ll be asked to complete a few qualifying questions before you can complete the survey. These are usually conducted by trusted research companies such as Qualtrics and and are considered safe.

On the other hand, there are a lot of red flags associated with online survey scams. If an organization does any of the following, it’s probably illegitimate:

Asks you for money or bank information

If you’re asked to pay membership fees, postage fees, or provide financial details so the company can “deposit your rewards,” you’re most likely dealing with an online survey scam. Legitimate survey sites will never ask for money or financial information.

Requests personally identifiable information

Research firms do not need personal information such as your full address, phone number or Social Security number. At most, they may ask for general demographic data such as your ZIP code, age and sex. If a survey asks for anything more specific, it may be a scam designed to collect your information for identity theft.

Promises you’ll get money

Market researchers have specific criteria for the participants in each survey they develop. As a result, you may not qualify for many paid survey opportunities based on your demographics, so there’s no guarantee you’ll make money. Also, most legitimate survey organizations use non-cash rewards such as points, discounts or gift cards; very few pay in cash. If a company promises you steady income or excessively high rewards, it’s probably a scam.

Fails to show you their privacy policy

Trustworthy survey sites promise not to sell your data, or at least not without your consent. This is a standard industry practice. Scam survey sites, however, make no such privacy guarantees, because they’re often in business to capture your information and sell it to direct marketing sites, or worse, nefarious organizations.

“Giving out any personal information is a bad idea,” said Hatter. “You should seriously question giving anyone any more information than is absolutely necessary—for any reason—especially online surveys. The fact is, most of these surveys are out to scam you, and if they’re not out to scam you, you have no idea what they do with your data once they get it or how they protect it. Every day, you read about another data breach—and when bad guys get your data, they do bad things with it.”

Hatter also cautions against any surveys or questionnaires found on social media. “Surveys on social media are a big red flag,” he said. Facebook has been under fire over privacy concerns with the huge amount of data it collects. Hatter said,“There’s no good tradeoff for you in giving these online surveys access to the data in your Facebook account, which is essentially what you’re doing. Even if you think you know what you’re giving them, you have no idea what they’re taking.”

Tips to protect yourself against online survey scams

You can try to protect yourself against online survey scams—and other types of online scams—with the following common-sense precautions:

Don’t share your personal information online

“Never give out personal data unless you understand who will control it and what they will do with it,” Hatter said. If an online research company doesn’t have a privacy policy, don’t participate in any survey programs.

Exercise caution about offers that seem too good to be true

This is a common tactic scammers use to draw you in and get your personal information. No one gets rich doing online surveys, so any site promising you big reward checks is probably out to scam you.

Don’t open emails from anonymous addresses

Legitimate survey companies won’t email you from a Yahoo! or Gmail account, they’ll have a verifiable business address. If you’re not sure who you’re dealing with, use an email search to potentially learn more about the sender’s identity. Hatter also said bad grammar and spelling errors in the offer email can be a red flag, too. If the email doesn’t seem professionally written, you may be dealing with an international email scam.

Never give information over the phone

Some survey scams contact you by telephone to “register” you for a research panel. They do this because the telemarketing Do Not Call Registry doesn’t apply to legitimate survey companies. Scammers skirt the law by pretending to be a surveyor. Once they get your information, they can turn around and sell it to a marketing company. Some even attempt to get your bank or credit card information and use it to commit financial fraud. If you’re contacted by a surveyor, don’t give out any information until you find out more about the caller’s identity. A reverse phone lookup may help identify telephone scams.

Hatter also cautions against downloading survey apps on your phone. “When you download something to your phone, you usually give it all kinds of permissions. Unless you carefully read the terms of use, you could be giving it access to everything on your phone—your contacts, your photos, texts and emails, even your geolocation,” he said. “If you don’t really understand what you’re doing, these scammers can drain your bank account and steal your identity before you realize what’s happening.”

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.