Affiliate Uses Screenshot to Create Phony Merchant Site

sam.engel Nov 21, 2013
Affiliate Copies Merchant's Site

Blackhat affiliates frequently come up with new tactics for driving traffic. While the specific details of these tactics may vary, they're all based on similar concepts: brand imitation, misrepresentation, or other attempts to confuse customers. During the course of our brand monitoring, we catch a wide variety of affiliate abuse—from ad hijacking to the republishing of exclusive coupon codes.

We've recently found a new example to add to the list. In this scenario, the affiliate copies and masquerades as the merchant's site, baiting customers into clicking on links that seem like they're part of the merchant's own site—but are actually affiliate links. Here's how it works:

  1. Affiliate takes a screenshot of the merchant's homepage.
  2. The affiliate places that screenshot as the background image on a web page that the affiliate owns.
  3. The affiliate then uses that image as the anchor of their affiliate link.
  4. Affiliate drives traffic to this fake version of the merchant's site.
  5. Whenever a visitor clicks anywhere on the image, they're taken through a redirect on a separate domain, then through the affiliate's link and over to the merchant's site.

Side-by-Side Comparison of the Merchant's Site and the Affiliate's Site

Here's a quick way to understand just how similar the two sites are. See how many differences you can spot between the two web pages below:

Affiliate Mimics Merchant

The affiliate's site is almost identical to the merchant's.


Blu Cig Affiliate Abuse

We originally discovered this after a search for "Blu Cig" (a popular e-cigarette brand) returned a suspicious ad (pictured on the right). Why would Blu's "Official Site" be hosted on Wordpress.com? This raised an immediate red flag, the significance of which we then confirmed by inspecting the ad's landing page. The ad sends you over to blucigsstore.wordpress.com, which looks strikingly similar to Blu Cig's actual homepage. However, if you look at the WordPress site a little longer, some of the distinctions start to show.

Elements of a Fake Merchant Site

For starters, there's an odd cut-off where the WordPress container meets the edge of the image. You'll notice a strange border between white and light-gray just above the Blu logo on the affiliate's page. Furthermore, the affiliate page is just an image—so it doesn't have any of the visual feedback that you can get from the JavaScript in the navigation of Blu's official site. There are many other tip-offs on the affiliate page, including the fact that the image slideshow never actually rotates. We've marked some additional ones in the image below:

Blu Cig Landing Page

1: Border where image meets container, 2: additional WordPress border, 3: outdated # of Facebook likes, 4: non-responsive navigation, 5: slides do not rotate, 6: outdated press reference

By the Time the Customer Notices, It's Probably Too Late

Unfortunately, while all of this is pretty clear in retrospect, it may not be so obvious when the user initially experiences it. "Official Website" may attract more attention than "wordpress.com" in the ad title and display URL. And once the customer reaches the affiliate's copycat page, they're likely to click somewhere—even if they're suspicious or confused. After all, a click can give a quick answer to the "what's going on with this site?" question. But that's all it takes. Once the user has clicked, the affiliate has set the cookie and is ready to receive a commission.

A Poor Brand Experience

What impression will the average customer get from this? Will they be able to tell what happened behind the scenes? Probably not. Instead, they may only remember a strange landing page that delayed them from getting to their intended destination. Or worse, they might even think that the site is acting up and having technical difficulties (a bug, slow server, or some other issue). That not only causes immediate friction—it can also result in a longer-term negative impression of the brand.

How New Is This Tactic?

In the past, we've noticed similar affiliate tactics with iFrames rather than images. We'd also expect that some affiliate managers would have some similar stories to tell about affiliate sites that misrepresented or abused their brand in some way. Wade Tonkin from Fanatics and AffiliateWarrior has an interesting post on the subject where he identifies some the ways that affiliates try to create brand confusion for visitors.

If anyone has had similar experiences with these types of tactics, we'd welcome any stories or examples that you'd like to share! As always, the more knowledge we accumulate about blackhat tactics, the more we can prevent them.

Topics: Affiliate Marketing

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