Thursday, February 25, 2010


Not a day goes by that I don’t get an offer from a Facebook friend inviting me to play this or that game or install this or that widget within my Facebook page. The most annoying of these are Farmville and Mafia Wars games. My skeptical antenna vibrates every time I receive one of those silly requests but, until I wrote this article, I never knew what kind of scam lies beneath the fun.

What your mamma told you is true: There is no such thing as a free lunch. You may not have given a dime to the companies who run these games but millions of others (including your children) are getting scammed and paying the price for you. I’ll focus on Farmville here but Mafia Wars and similar games share the same characteristics.

For those that don’t know, Farmville is a Facebook game where you create a virtual farm and spend hours of unproductive time growing crops, raising livestock, and tilling the earth. Your hard work earns virtual money that you can use to grow your farm. If you lack patience you can invest real cash (through PayPal or a credit card) to buy virtual goods, such as seed or a tractor (which is all kind of obscene considering all the “real” starving people on this planet but that’s a rant for another day). You can also grow your farm by accepting offers from advertisers who give you virtual money in return for signing up for their product.

The scam begins when these advertisers lure players in with offers to take a bogus survey or IQ test. Once you complete the test they require that you provide your cell-phone number so the results can be sent to you via text message. You are then sent a PIN code to be entered into the quiz. Entering that PIN code nets you a subscription to a bogus “text message” service for $9.99 per month that is billed to your cell phone account. I can almost hear the alarm bells going off in many parent’s heads as they realize why their child’s cell phone bill has been increasing.

Another example involves an offer for a "risk-free" trial subscription to a green tea herbal supplement program. That “trial” becomes a difficult-to-cancel subscription that delivers tea and bogus “natural” pills from China every month.

Facebook said it is committed to banning ad providers that deliver content in violation of Facebook "principles or policies" and already has cut off many providers but others will take their place. The promise of riches from gullible victims is just too strong.

This scam is similar to most computer viruses and spyware attacks. It is not “the computer” that is at fault. No, the blame lies with that loose nut behind the keyboard. My only advice is to be skeptical of everything you see on the ‘net. If you’ve ever give up your cell phone or credit card number in any of these games, check your bill for erroneous charges immediately. I wish you luck in getting your money back.

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