Online surveys and quizzes are all over the internet. They’re quick and cheap to set up, easy for recipients to fill out, and simple for researchers to interpret. It’s no wonder that they remain a popular tool for marketers to reach and research their target audiences.

Many of them are indeed legitimate and even paid or offer other rewards in return. Every little helps, especially during the cost-of-living crisis. Or perhaps you have another (and good) reason to participate in them – assuming you also understand the value of the information you may be disclosing about yourself and your family.

But since it’s just as quick and easy for scammers to mimic legit surveys for their own ends and dangle ‘rewards’ in exchange for answers to a couple of seemingly innocuous questions, how can you tell a legitimate survey from a phoney one?

Whether the scammers are looking to steal your passwords, credit card details or other information, install malware on your PC or another device, or add you to more spam mailing lists, it makes sense to understand what the risks are, and how to “separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Tell-tale signs of scam surveys

These scam campaigns are increasingly big business for cybercriminals. One study recently revealed that a single criminal network was making US$80 million per month from global victims – using surveys and giveaways from 120 well-known brands to lure its victims.

You guessed it. This survey – which was part of a scam campaign we wrote about in 2018 – isn't real

Here are some of the red flags to watch out for:

  • The scam often begins with an unsolicited email or text/message likely spammed out to countless other victims. This is basically a phishing message designed to lure the recipient into participating by clicking through.
  • It often features a well-known brand to add a sense of legitimacy and encourage the victim to participate. In December 2022, a popular survey scam abused the brand of chocolate-maker Cadbury to do this – promising recipients the chance to win ‘an exclusive Christmas Chocolate Magic Basket’ if they took a short quiz.
  • The scam may feature a thematic lure – such as the Christmas Cadbury one, or the supposed ‘40th anniversary’ of wholesaler Costco which was used in a June 2022 campaign in South America.

Scam that spread in Latin America in 2022

  • Recipients are offered money, a gift card, a gadget (e.g., iPad/iPhone), entry to a sweepstake, money off their next purchase, or any number of non-existent prizes if they participate in the survey. But …
  • Scammers may request the participant pays a ‘processing fee,’ ‘taxes’ or a ‘shipping/handling’ charge in order to receive the non-existent prize.
  • Clicking on the message will take the user not to a legitimate brand’s website but an imposter website.
  • Often, the user is redirected multiple times en route to the fake survey, as was the case with this scam, which promised a $500 Ulta Beauty gift card to victims.
  • Victims are often asked to share the survey/giveaway offer with their social media or other contacts, which distributes the scam even further while adding legitimacy in the eyes of recipients.

WhatsApp Emirates survey

survey scam

Scams involving fake surveys have been doing the rounds for years. Here's an example of a scam we wrote about back in 2016

What are the dangers surrounding survey scams?

If you’re unlucky enough to fall for one of these scams, there are several potential outcomes. You might:

  • Be asked to fill out personal information that is then processed to add you to a spamming list.
  • Be asked to fill out personal and financial information that results in identity fraud and/or follow-on phishing attempts.
  • Unwittingly install malware on your machine by visiting the scam site. Sometimes the survey site may even flash up fake AV warnings. Malware could steal your login details for banking or crypto accounts, encrypt your files unless you pay a ransom (ransomware), co-opt your machine into a botnet etc.
  • Be asked to pay some money for nothing, such as membership of a group which will share details of paid surveys with you.
  • Be hit with an advanced fee scam – e.g., where you’re asked to pay a small fee in return for a prize that never materializes.

The bottom line is that survey scams lead to nothing but monetary or data loss – plus the emotional distress of trying to get your money back and cancelling bank cards.

How to protect yourself

With the above in mind, it makes sense to understand the tell-tale signs of a survey scam, what to do in order to stay safe and what should happen if you fall victim. Consider the following tips to spot suspicious surveys:

  • Look out for any offers that seem too good to be true. It could be a large cash prize for just a few minutes work, or an expensive gift.
  • Watch out for typos or poor grammar – it could be a sign that things aren’t quite right.
  • Shortened URLs might also indicate fraud.
  • Time-Limited offers are another way for scammers to turn up the pressure on their victims.
  • Some senders may be vague about who’s running the survey – with no “contact us” link to follow.
  • If the sender uses a free webmail account, then the survey is likely to be a scam.

Also, take the following steps to stay safe and secure:

  • Don’t blindly trust survey offers, even if sent from a friend or family member.
  • Research the giveaway to see if it’s being reported as a scam or if it’s legitimate.
  • Install a security solution from a reputable vendor on all devices and PCs.
  • Keep your OS and apps updated across all PCs and devices.
  • Only trust official app stores, such as Google Play and the App Store.
  • Keep informed about current threats – it will provide a useful early warning system.
  • Use strong and unique passwords together with multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all important accounts. Even if scammers steal your passwords, it’s less likely they can access those accounts with 2FA enabled.
  • Don’t trust the caller ID/sender number for unsolicited messages.
  • Never pay to retrieve ‘funds’these are always scams.

If the worst happens, report compromised cards immediately to your bank to have them cancelled, or freeze them first via your banking app. And change any passwords that may have been compromised.

Surveys may be a useful tool for marketers, but they are often of limited value to consumers. Best avoid them altogether unless you have a very good reason not to.