Did someone just try a short URL switcheroo scam on me?

I received an email this morning that struck me as a little odd. At the time I didn’t put all the pieces together, but now I realise the guy may have been string to trick me into getting a link from my site that he could later redirect to wherever he wanted.

Here’s the email, with names redacted to protect the innocent (i.e. me):

Subject: Regarding Copyright Infographic!

Hi,

Thank you for using our Infographic (http://tiny99.com/564743) in your post: http://halfblog.net/2011/12/02/who-are-the-occupy-wall-street-protestors/

We’ve noticed that you haven’t linked back to the original source of infographic. So, I wanted to reach out to you, to request that if you may link back to the original source. We’ll highly appreciate it.

Please replace the graphic with following code:

<a href=”http://tiny99.com/564743″><img style=”max-width:100%;” alt=”” src=”http://thumbnails.visually.netdna-cdn.com/who-is-occupy-wall-street_50290d958535f.jpg” /></a>

Or you may place the following source link at the bottom of infographic:

<a href=”http://tiny99.com/564743″>Source</a>

I’ll be waiting for your kind response.

Thanks,
R___ B___

Here were my clues at the time that things didn’t smell right:

  1. The email was sent via my domain registrar. Not the easiest way to manually find my contact info, but it’s probably what someone would do if they were sending out loads of these emails automatically.
  2. The email was from a generic yahoo.com address. I would expect for this kind of message to come from the site of concern, a marketing company of some kind or a serious sounding legal firm.
  3. The tiny99.com URL shortened links stink of a scam (or of someone who doesn’t know what they are doing). My original assumption was that Mr. SEO minion here wanted to measure his success to justify his paycheque.

Let’s take a closer look at tiny99:

tiny99-com

Here’s what rings alarm bells for me:

  • No branding! Could there be a more generic title than ‘URL Shortener’?
  • Only 252 total URLs have ever been shortened.
  • The ‘Random Fun Link’ is tiny99.com.

So, nothing too conclusive. I’m sure thousands of people tried to create URL shortening services back in the day, though I doubt many are any more. That ship has long since sailed, and it’s been sinking the whole time.

My theory

Here’s what I think the scam is:

  1. Create a bare-bones URL shortening service.
  2. Get loads of blogs to add your short URLs into their posts by making reasonable sounding requests in the name of reputable blogs.
  3. At some point in the future, switch those URLs to point wherever you want them to go.

Bam. Instant inbound links to whatever new dodgy website you create or for your less ethical clients.

What I did

Even before I figured out what was probably going on, I wasn’t prepared to put a short URL in one of my posts and introduce an arbitrary point of failure between my site and where I’m pointing to. I did edit my post with a direct link to Fast Co. (I had previously credited the people who produced the infographic that Fast Co. commissioned).

I replied to my new friend explaining this and soon after got a reply back, reproduced below in full:

Thanks.

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7 thoughts on “Did someone just try a short URL switcheroo scam on me?

  1. Potentially sneaky but I don’t see how this would help SEO as the link is one step removed. The links ultimately come from tiny99 not the site of a sucker publisher/blogger who falls for the scam (present company excepted of course). But they would get some free clicks from your visitors.

    • My understanding is that URL shorteners typically use a 301 redirect, which takes themselves out of the equation. I’m sure search engines could blacklist dodgy domains so that even redirects through those domains got penalised though.

      I’m not really certain.

      • Ah, some research shows me that more well known shortening services use 301 redirects.

        So you’re right, they could be doing this.

  2. Hi Geoff,

    I have been hit up with this scam twice…

    The email was from luishill87@yahoo.com at first I got mad at the big company who the Tiny link went back to.

    However, today I was hit up for an infographic that my team created and I know for a fact that this client did not request us to change the link.

    I’m still confused on what exactly is going on here.

    There is no way that the owners of the infographic are doing this… so I can only think that someone at TinyURL has gone rougue… but can’t see it.

    Found this from Tiny URL founder: “”Sorry, but since we do not keep track of who created each TinyURL, they cannot be changed or removed. ”

    So it seems you can’t change the TinyURL after the fact… which would be the obvious switcheroo trick.

    Any more ideas on what this scam is trying to achieve?

    Danny

    • I think your trickster is trying the same scam, for the same reasons I described in my post, just using TinyURL instead of a bespoke shortener.

      They’re hoping to get as many people as possible to use URLs they control onto our ‘real’ blogs. A link from a reputable (ie: older and with original content) blog counts for a lot more. When they switch their URL, the link on your trustworthy site points to their scammy operation, which Google then trusts a little more and ranks higher as a result.

      And this is why we can’t have nice things.

  3. Thanks for this, Geoff. I was just trying to work out why on earth someone would give me a link to a book coupon to credit against a Facebook infographic (that I had embedded from an infographics source) and that had not been created by the company that luis says he comes from.

  4. Pingback: Be Aware - New Contact Form ScamLollipop Local: SEO Services | Social Media Optimisation

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