One weird trick to steal your money

David Barnett

On this year’s World Diabetes Day1, it is sobering to reflect on the recent, depressing predictions by Public Health England concerning the disease. The organization released a forecast stating that the number of people with the disease could top five million if obesity rates continue to increase, with one in ten adults in the UK being at risk of developing diabetes by 2035. This would mean that £1 of every £6 spent by the NHS would be allocated to providing care for diabetes patients2.

Given the number of people affected by the condition, it is perhaps unsurprising that related material is often used as a ‘hook’ to attract the attention of Internet users. There’s a very large number of websites, social media postings and spam e-mails in circulation that purport to provide information on supposed treatments for the disease. (A simple search using NetNames’ Domain Monitor product, for example, shows that there are over 400 registered gTLD domains with names containing ‘cure’ and ‘diabetes’.) Many of these offer pharmaceuticals or other products, or e-books giving guidance on lifestyle changes, that are stated as having the capability to cure the condition. Of course, a significant proportion of these claims are bogus, and simply comprise attempts to extract payments from vulnerable sufferers. Other similar types of scam might claim to provide links to articles giving information on cures or research (such as the familiar “here’s the secret that Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know” postings), but are simply acting as ‘click-bait − encouraging users to navigate to websites featuring malicious or otherwise unsavory content.

A 2015 blog posting3 presents a case study of a typical scam. The start point in this case is a spam e-mail encouraging readers to “discover the diabetes miracle for yourself”, by clicking on a link to “watch a short video to change your life”. The mail links to a website showing a 40-minute video presented by a purported medical doctor, offering the sale (for $37) of a training course that can supposedly cure diabetes by “following simple instructions for four to six minutes a day”. The individual(s) behind the scam have also made good use of other promotional techniques, including the online posting of fake reviews in support of the treatment, and the application of search-engine optimization to ensure high search-engine rankings for the website. A second review of the same case, published by the San Diego Consumers Action Network4, notes a number of additional factors about the scam, including the facts that: i) the ‘doctor’ featured in the video is actually a fake; ii) the pseudo-science presented in the video is (of course) bogus; and iii) the payment for the product on offer is made through a payment gateway that is unregulated and “has generated a number of complaints about difficulties in securing refunds and getting responses”. This type of scam is nothing new; a blog posting from 10 years ago5 reports a similar con, offering a fake product called Glucobate, at a time when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA launched a campaign to crack down on such schemes, sending 180 warning letters to entities involved in the distribution of deceptive advertisements6.

An article by economist Alex Kaufman7 presents a study of the psychology behind the videos produced by the purveyors of the “one weird trick to cure diabetes” type of campaign. Kaufman notes that common themes include: i) the claim that the idea being presented is ‘secret’, using the knowledge that people will “give greater credence to information if they’ve been told it was once ‘classified’”; ii) the use of extended-length videos, under the assumption that “the more arguments you list in favor of something, regardless of the quality of those arguments, the more that people tend to believe it”, and also as a way of qualifying sales prospects by determining that “once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by e-mail later and sell them other products”; and iii) the use of adverts with quirky language (“one weird trick”) and poor-quality graphics, so as to generate a ‘hook’ that is intriguing, distinctive and accessible, and to provide “the illusion that it’s one man against the system”. Many of these ideas are also used – or built – on the many websites that can be found via simple Internet searches for phrases such as ‘diabetes cure’; some of these will employ a kind of double-bluff, by rubbishing other similar sites, whilst simultaneously providing testimonials for their own products and services.

Given the familiarity of this type of scam, it may be surprising that people will still pay money for fake treatments. However, there still seems to be a willingness by sufferers to believe bogus claims, borne out of a hope that claims of cures for their disease might be based in reality. A posting in a forum on the website, for example, talks about a Facebook post advertising a diabetes ‘cure’, stating that the reader had “clicked on the link and it doesn't give much away about what it is or how it works but I was reading through the comments and apparently only a select few seemed to have had prior knowledge about it”. As with many things on the Internet – and in life – it is often advisable to apply the old mantra that “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”.




David Barnett is Head of Analysis and Consultancy in the NetNames Brand Protection team.

His forthcoming book, ‘Brand Protection in the Online World’, will be published in December and is currently available to pre-order via the publisher’s website: