Fighting Hotline Fraud

We’ve covered the subject of fraud before, but recent reader complaints have made it evident that even more help is needed. Specifically, many of the pay-per-click and pay-per-lead programs are having great difficulty with fraud detection and control. The biggest culprits are web sites running so-called Hotline Servers.

Before we get too far, let me make it clear that I am not an expert on Hotline Servers. I know just enough to be dangerous. There is a strong possibility that some of the information below will miss the mark technically speaking. That said, hopefully you’ll come away armed with enough information to spot Hotline Servers at work in your programs.

What Is a Hotline Server?

According to Hotline Communications’ web site, “the Hotline Server is easy to implement and small enough to be run on your own desktop computer. To get up and running, all you need is your computer, an Internet connection and an idea.”

While that sounds all well and good, a Hotline Server is more commonly used for downloading “warez” pirated software. The June 19, 2000, issue of The Industry Standard has an entire series on software piracy. One of the articles, “Trolling for Tech Treasure,” details the exploits of “Captain Hook,” an independent filmmaker from Idaho in search of illegal software using a Hotline Server.

So How Does Affiliate Marketing Fit In?

About halfway through the Captain Hook article, the danger to affiliate marketing starts to unfold. “Hook begins the process of obtaining a user name and password for the software. In the past, this has taken him as long as an hour and a half. ‘It’s a laborious process,’ he adds, one that involves clicking through several porn sites to gather the necessary information, such as the fifth word on a particular banner ad or the 22nd word on a home page. ‘There are porn windows popping up all over the place,’ he says. But another half-hour later, Hook has his password.”

The real trouble is that while porn makes a fitting angle for The Standard’s story, in reality, wading through any series of pay-per-click and pay-per-lead affiliate programs en route to a user name and password will do just nicely. You see Hotline operators make would-be downloaders drudge through pages of banners and links in order to get the magic password buried on line 17 of the thank-you page of some pay-per-lead merchant.

At least some Hotline operators like to brag about their endeavors. Below I’ve excerpted some info from one such operator’s rantings. I’ve made a few edits for the sake of brevity, but otherwise it’s pretty much unaltered.

    Computer Specifications:

    High-End Graphics Computer!
    System OS: Dual Boot-- 98/NT 4.0
    Dual 550Mhz Intel Pentium Processors
    256 Megs of sdram
    133mhz motherboard bus
    Three external 40 GIG harddrives(SCSI)
    Tower Case, 2 CD-ROM, 6x CD-RW, DVD-ROM
    1 GB Jazz Drive
    Creative 3D Annihilator pro Video card (300Mhz)
    Sound Blaster Live
    High Speed T3 lines(100mbs ethernet network)
    18.1" TFT LCD Monitor

    This computer is TOP of the LINE! i only 'WISH' it was mine though...it's mine while i'm at work...but then that's it...it is sitting in a university graphics department...We use it for mass plotting and things of the such....anyhow, i can rarely be here....so i took some pre-cautions regarding the spamming...news posting rights, and of course no uploads!

    please read the following to be 'filled in':
    --------this was done to prevent my Boss from seeing anything out of the ordinary (profanity,etc). And also to minimize on those pesky 'SPAMMERS'!!!

    vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

    DOWNLOAD ACCESS!!!!

    Don't wanna be a guest with zilch for rights?
    For a FULL Download Access Account simply complete the following:

    highlight then copy/paste(CTRL-C/CTRL-V) this URL into your web browser: [URL removed]

    use the banner at the very top
    fill in email (must be real) and click 'go'
    Look in the first sentence
    The first word is the LOGIN/PASS
    use all lower case
    happy downloading!

How Can You Spot a Hotline Server?

The most common form factor seems to be a random collection of links, typically hosted at a free hosting service like FreeYellow, Dencity or Stormloader although any service will work just fine. Hotline Servers tend to have shallow sites, sometimes with as little as one page of content and I use the term “content” loosely. Another distinguishing feature is an incredibly high traffic level, especially in light of the limited content offered. Finally, Hotline sites often have suspicious-looking referral URLs URLs that either don’t work or appear cryptic.

Another valuable resource in fighting Hotline fraud is your affiliate network. As with anything, some networks are much better than others, but you should still push them to help you understand how to prevent Hotline fraud.

Overall, Hotline fraud is a case of a few cheaters generating tremendous quantities of bogus traffic, most likely as a backdrop to even greater fraud as they distribute pirated software. By looking for some of the telltale signs, you stand a greater chance of catching Hotline operators. Happy hunting.

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