Child Porn Affiliate Scams
It has been two years since an FBI investigation — with the aid of the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection — went after a child porn operator posing as an affiliate of GigaCash.
In this case, the child porn operator had figured out a way to use the adult affiliate program as a money laundering scam. Specifically, the distributor obtained commissions through GigaCash for a phony adult site while directing visitors to its illegal child porn content located elsewhere. Once membership fees were collected, the child porn operator would then provide the child porn seeker with password information to the illegal site. The scam served as both the lure and the payment device for visitors, and the money funded child porn and provided the type of content its visitors were really after.
ASACP, lead by Executive Director Joan Irvine, discovered the abuse through a tip and alerted GigaCash and the FBI, who requested they allow the illegal affiliate to go about its business as they investigated. The FBI chased the operator all the way to France, where the investigation became mired in international law. The Bureau subsequently sent a letter of appreciation to ASACP for its efforts.
For the perpetrator, it's an easy scam, sources claim. For the victim, it's very difficult to detect. A large affiliate operation like GigaCash, for example, has thousands of affiliates to monitor. With such daunting numbers, it's almost a given that this still happens, but the real question becomes: how often?
"It happens all the time," said Brandon Shalton, CEO of Cydata Services, an Internet firm serving as the technology arm of ASACP. His company spends much of its time spidering the web and ASACP members for suspicious and unacceptable words that denote the presence of child pornography.
Shalton said it's simple to set up a bogus affiliate scam. Commonly, he said, a child porn operator starts with a seemingly innocuous free site to join as many as 50 affiliate programs. The child porn operator then spreads the word, often through spam email, to lure potential child porn viewers to the free site. Interested parties are instructed to buy a membership to one of the legitimate paysites.
"There are some warning signs," Shalton said. "One of the most obvious is when members sign up to a paysite but only visit once. What's happening is that the visitor is paying the legitimate site for access to the illegal affiliate, so the visitor will only make one stop at the legitimate program."
Shalton said he is always amazed when a paysite owner doesn't catch this one. "Someone pays $29.95 and only logs on one time?" he said. "And that's normal? They aren't checking their traffic."
ASACP's statistics (available online at www.asacp.org) show that modest but steady increases spiked in recent years, jumping from fewer than 2,000 reports per month in July 2001 to around 6,000 in 2004.
Irvine estimates that a large part of the increase in reports has to do with increased awareness. Put simply, reports are up because more people are reporting. ASACP has succeeded in developing a strong presence in the online community, Irvine said, further reasoning that site operators and the general public might feel more comfortable coming to ASACP rather than the authorities. Increased illegal activity, including affiliate scams, also account for part of the increase in reports, Irvine said, but the only evidence available is anecdotal.
In addition, illegal operators' ability to blend in seemingly everywhere at once makes notification especially difficult. Irvine said a new automated alert system ASACP hopes to activate within the next few months might help. It will use mass email to alert all ASACP members with information they can use to check their affiliates for similar scams. Site operators who want to be part of this warning system are directed to become a member of ASACP.
The new system also promises to help track abuses, and although Irvine and ASACP have noticed a sharp increase in reports, the group doesn't have the numbers yet to determine exactly how much of that is an increase in activity, and of that, how much is from affiliate scams. The new system promises to provide more numbers and a better picture of what's going on.
"The new database system provides us with the ability to more quickly determine trends and the most frequently used ISP, billing and domain registrars," Irvine said. "We'll have even better information as we move forward that will allow us to be more proactive in having these child porn sites shut down, which is our major goal.