Are online surveys legal and safe? Watch out for survey scams


“Can I tell the difference between a legitimate survey and a fake one?” is the single most important question you need to answer yourself before taking any survey online

Online surveys and quizzes are everywhere on the internet. They are quick and inexpensive to prepare, easy for recipients to fill out, and easy for researchers to interpret. It’s no surprise that they remain a popular tool for marketers to reach and research their target audience.

Many of them are legit and even pay or offer other rewards in return. Every little bit helps, especially during a cost of living crisis. Or maybe you have another (and good) reason for participating in it – assuming you also understand the value of the information you might reveal about yourself and your family.

But since scammers can quickly and easily impersonate legitimate surveys for their own purposes and dangle ‘prizes’ in exchange for answers to some seemingly innocuous questions, how do you tell a legitimate survey from a fake?

Whether a scammer wants to steal passwords, credit card details, or other information, install malware on your PC or other 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”.

Scam survey signs

These deceptive campaigns are becoming a bigger and bigger business for cyber criminals. A recent study revealed that one criminal ring generates US$80 million per month from global victims – using surveys and giveaways from 120 top brands to lure its victims.

You guessed it. This survey – which is part of a scam campaign we wrote in 2018 – not real

Here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • Fraud often starts with unsolicited emails or texts/messages it was likely spammed to countless other victims. This basically is phishing messages designed to entice recipients to participate with a click.
  • It often displays a famous brand to add to a sense of legitimacy and encourage victims to participate. In December 2022, popular survey scam abusing chocolate maker Cadbury’s brand to do this – promising recipients the chance to win an exclusive ‘Magic Basket of Christmas Chocolates’ if they take a short quiz.
  • Fraud may feature a thematic lure – like Christmas Cadbury, or should be ’40th Costco wholesalers’ anniversary used in the June 2022 campaign in South America.

Fraud spreading in Latin America in 2022

  • Recipient offered money, gift cards, gadgets (e.g., iPad/iPhone), enter sweepstakes, money from their next purchase, or some non-existent prizes if they participate in surveys. But…
  • Fraudsters can ask participants to pay a ‘processing fee’, ‘tax’ or ‘shipping/handling’ fee to receive gifts that don’t exist.
  • Clicking on the message takes the user not to the legitimate brand’s website, but to the legitimate brand’s website scam site.
  • Often, users redirected many times and travel plans for fake surveys, as is the case with this scamwho promised victims a $500 Ulta Beauty gift card.
  • Victims are often asked share survey/giveaway offers with their social media or other contacts, which distribute the fraud further while adding legitimacy in the eyes of the recipient.

Emirates WhatsApp Survey

survey fraud

Scams involving fake surveys have been around for years. Here is an example of deception we wrote about back in 2016

What are the dangers around survey scams?

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

  • Asked to fill in personal information which is then processed to add you to a spamming list.
  • Being asked to fill in personal and financial information resulting in identity fraud and/or further phishing attempts.
  • Unknowingly install malware on your machine by visiting scam sites. Sometimes survey sites even show fake AV alerts. Malware can 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.
  • Being asked to pay a free amount of money, such as membership to a group that will share paid survey details with you.
  • Being hit with follow-up fee scams – for example, where you are asked to pay a small fee in exchange for a gift that never materializes.

The bottom line is that survey scams result in nothing but loss of money or data – plus the emotional stress of trying to get your money back and canceling bank cards.

How to protect yourself

With the above in mind, it makes sense to understand the signs of survey scams, what to do to stay safe and what to do if you fall victim to them. Consider these tips for finding suspicious surveys:

  • Look for deals that seem too good to be true. It can be a large cash reward for just a few minutes of work, or an expensive gift.
  • Watch out for typos or bad grammar – it could be a sign that something is wrong.
  • Shortened URLs may also indicate deception.
  • Limited Time Offer is another way for fraudsters to increase the pressure on their victims.
  • Some senders may not be clear about who ran the survey – without following the “contact us” link.
  • If the sender uses free webmail account, then the survey is most likely a scam.

Additionally, take the following steps to stay safe and protected:

  • Don’t blindly trust survey offerseven if sent from a friend or family member.
  • Research the prizes to see if it was reported as a scam or legit.
  • Install a security solution from leading vendors on all devices and PCs.
  • Save your OS and apps updated on all PCs and devices.
  • Only trust official app stores, such as Google Play and the App Store.
  • Stay informed about current threats – it will provide a useful early warning system.
  • Use strong, unique passwords along with multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all important accounts. Even if a scammer steals your password, it is unlikely that they will be able to access the account with 2FA enabled.
  • Don’t trust caller ID/sender numbers for unwanted messages.
  • Never pay to take ‘funds’this is always a scam.

If the worst happens, immediately report the compromised card to your bank for cancellation, or freeze it first through 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. It’s best to avoid it altogether unless you have a very good reason not to.


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