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Inside the underground Pinterest spam rings turning your clicks into cash

pinterest spambotFor all its addict-inducing behavior and unprecedented early success, Pinterest has had its problems. Between the copyright questions and disturbing thinspo community, a comparatively less serious, but more prevelent threat has emerged: spam.

Recently a Pinterest spammer named Steve revealed he is making real money off of the site – and lo and behold, he isn’t the only one.

Bots for sale!

After reading Steve’s account, I was inclined to go looking for spam on Pinterest. As it turns out, that’s incredibly difficult. If you’ve ever visited the site, you know that it’s a giant virtual bulletin board full of giant virtual pins. It’s all images, and much of the content focuses on a wide assortment of things – things you happen to be able to buy online. This makes it very difficult to spot something that was put there artificially.

So my hunt stopped there and I made my way to Google. All it took was one simple phrase – Pinterest bots for sale — to turn up exactly what I was looking for. BlackHatWorld is an SEO forum where you can discuss and offer tips and tactics for boosting your site’s traffic. You can also buy a Pinterest spam bot collection there.

A user by the handle gimme4free advertises the product, which he said he began working on early this year. “In January I thought to give them a try by making up a couple of bots,” he writes. “After the success rates that I was seeing I decided to create a whole package of bots which I have  been using non-stop since the day [sic] with just a couple of account bans which were caused by excessive spamming & [sic] also they even lasted a few days before being shut down!”

“I have now decided to release this selection of bots to a low number of individuals. A lot of users of these programs could end up filtering Pinterest with too much spam or putting an early death to these bots. I want to continue profiting on Pinterest just as much as I want the buyers of these bots to profit well from them.”

The $249 package gets you:

  • PinterestFollowerBotA Pinterest Amazon Affiliate Product Submitter: Scrapes items from Amazon and re-submits them as pins to Pinterest along with your affiliate link in the description and the linked image. Automatically creates a relevant board as well.
  • A Pinterest Scheduler: Automatically creates unlimited scheduled pins to post to your accounts and creates your boards as well.
  • A Pinterest Follower Bot: Automatically finds and follows Pinterest users by keyword.
  • A Pinterest Popular Pin Re-Submitter: Finds the site’s most popular pins via keyword and resubmits them with your own links and descriptions.
  • A Pinterest Invite Code Generator: Uses your account(s) to create invite codes for you to send out.

That’s only a portion of what this thing will do, but you get the idea. Basically, it allows you to create mass Pinterest accounts and start running the site ragged with products you’re pushing. Automating all this means you can keep the potential percentage cut from bought items rolling all day long. This is just one of the various Pinterest spam products on the site. 

I contacted the seller under a fake name to ask some questions about buying the package. You can see the brief exchange below (click to enlarge). 

email exchange

While Pinterest should obviously care about this type of thing, Amazon might also want to consider taking a look at the scheme. According to Amazon’s product advertising API license agreement:

“You will not[…]compile or use Product Advertising Content for the purpose of direct marketing, spamming, unsolicited contacting of sellers or customers, or other advertising activities.”

Basically, Amazon wants to make sure that you aren’t spamming consumers with things that are listed on its site. The site probably doesn’t want to get false information about where its traffic is coming from – as “Chris” told me his software could do:

“This way you can even fake the referring URL to Amazon so Amazon think [sic] they are coming from your own site, you can send visitors to a shopping cart site or anywhere you like using extremely simple & [sic] easy to use scripts that we have created.”

WWTD (What Would Twitter Do?)

Pinterest isn’t the first to feel the wrath of spammers. Twitter in particular has a reputation for attracting the like. They are easy to spot, and their links dominate the site. A few years ago, programmer Charles Hooper decided to create a Twitter bot to promote books on Twitter. “Four months later and I had generated over $7,000 in sales for Amazon with over $400 commission for myself,” he wrote on his blog.

TwitSweeperTwitter isn’t clean of spam accounts to say the least, but we’ve all gotten older and wiser and now there are tools at our disposal. You can use an application like TidyTweet, TwitSweeper, StopTweet, TwitCleaner, or TwitBlock to take care of this type of thing. Twitter has also made attacking spam a priority

So what can Pinterest do about any of this? Well for starters, it’s probably going to need to crack down on spammers, and that really just means increasing its ranks and encouraging users to report this activity. It could also mean it needs to work with third party developers who can create clean-up applications for users to install. 

The moral ambiguity of Pinterest

Despite the fact that this all feels very shady, you can’t get around the fact that it’s really just a gray area. The reason it was initially difficult for me to find spam on Pinterest is because Pinterest is spam – really beautifully designed, user-friendly, user-created spam. It’s just that we’ve never seen it done this way before; it takes the user experience into account and instead of shoving the stuff down your throat in a very disruptive, obvious way, it’s just laying it all out there and letting users peruse at will.

Is an artificially pinned end table any less desirable than a naturally pinned one? Check out the images below — all spam from this faux account.

pinterest spam

It’s not as if pinning any of the above content is going to hurt anyone — but it’s a slippery slope. Right now, the spam in question blends in, but the only thing to keep spammers from flooding the site with out of place ads is heavy policing on Pinterest’s part. And the startup isn’t exactly known for its quick reaction time.

Much of Pinterest’s early success can be tied back to its focus on the user experience. It’s a very intuitive and immersive application, and that’s why people have really taken to it. But if that community and aura is threatened, Pinterest could be in trouble. If the spammers on BlackHatWorld are right, then this site is ripe for the picking. In the short term, it’s not malware that Pinterest has to worry about, but the user experience. If the site is overrun with fake accounts and fake pins, it eventually will become more noticeable and disruptive. “I had no idea that people did this,” avid user Renee Lane said when asked what she thought about spammers on the site. “I like to think there are people who don’t do bad things to ruin good things for others.”

There’s obviously the larger issue of viruses that could easily become a problem. Here’s one fake account that I ran across a potential problem with. On the BlackHatWorld forum, the user that runs the “Monica Gellar” Pinterest account says the software for sale has been an asset. When browsing the site, I clicked on an image of a dress with a bitly.com link, found it was trying to install a cookie, and got this: 

threat was blocked

Spammers are figuring out how to use Pinterest and they are doing it quickly. It’s enough to make you wary about what you click on, and that’s a big user sacrifice and a detriment to the site. It’s creating a bad image, if nothing else. Thankfully, Pinterest has responded, telling MarketingLand “As a growing service, Pinterest is not immune to challenges faced by sites across the web, including spam. However, it is a tremendous priority for us to quickly address them. Our engineers are actively working to manage issues as they arise and are revisiting the nature of public feeds on the site to make it harder for fake or harmful content to get into them.”

Pinterest got big overnight and so did its spam problem. But the site’s (and spam’s) viral nature means that fighting it could be a real challenge.