I fell down this rabbit hole while trying to investigate some spammy account behavior on Narro. I've been running Narro as a SAAS application with a free trial for several years now, which means I have dealt with a lot of spam account creation.
Every once in a while, when I notice a new spam pattern take shape, I dig in to understand their goal. As I got more curious about the actual goal behind this recent account type, I started to write it down, as a snapshot of a (seemingly) popular spam account archetype in 2022. Of course, it related to cryptocurrencies. So I figured they might be doing something new and special.
Michael Mason made an account on Narro. They immediately generated enough audio readings to max out the free tier, all of them articles with similar structure from the same domain/blog: michaelmason0.blogspot.com. So, it got flagged and I took a look.
This is a blog operated by a fake person. Looking at that site and Michael's linked Blogger profile, they seem to consist of:
- a fake name (with Gmail email address to match)
- a profile picture generated by a neural net - likely This Person Does Not Exist
- a bio generated by a neural net - likely GPT-3, though it could be something simpler
Michael Mason's profile/site has links to twenty different SAAS tools where you can make a free-tier account (Narro being only one of them). They have an account on each one. I guess it’s 22 if you include the Blogger account and the Gmail account that hosts the email address. Every one contains only posts originating from this blog.
Almost all of these accounts are currently operating, all a couple weeks old, made within a day or two of each other. I think this means that an actual person went through the process of making these and activating them - even if they are auto-posting now. The YouTube account was ‘terminated due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy against spam[...]’ Good on you, YouTube.
But let's take a look at the articles on this blog! Every post is a reblog (with links) to an article on topcryptonews.net - a separate blog running on WordPress - as well as another mirror site run on Weebly. Through the sidebar, it also links to a WordPress site that mirrors the same posts a third time.
Each article has a cryptocurrency headline - taken from the source article it is linking - and text content auto-generated by GPT-3 or some other ML text generator. The actual content of each article is entirely unrelated to the headline topic. For example, the post headlined WORLDS BIGGEST CRYPTO INVESTOR GIVES BITCOINS MOST IMPORTANT DATE THIS YEAR! includes the gem "Japanese candle holders present the rate activity over a specific period." Here's another sample:
With the passing of an additional fourth of July it is a takeoff for our academic system where countless Americans still can’t equate why we commemorate the fourth of July in the initial area. It must be noted that our institutions should make it necessary for all elementary and also secondary school trainees to not just review the Federalist Documents yet be called for to compose their very own run-through of why they are so crucial for America and also relevant also today. Many today are oblivious to the actual factor this vacation is so vital.
Ok, so this stuff is headline clickbait...for what?
The Source Material
Let's look at this source blog, Top Crypto News. Every post on this site is just a reblog of a YouTube video, pulled from various channels about cryptocurrencies. Even those articles are either empty (just an embed of the YouTube video) or contain auto-generated text unrelated to the topic (the same text found on the Blogger and WordPress and Weebly sites).
Every post on this site is authored by someone named ‘Harry’. Their bio image is a photo of Hugh Jackman, but there's not much else there.
Oh, and this site has ads - a lot of them - all pointing to the same place: cryptoultimatum.com.
Crypto Ultimatum is a simple sales site trying to sell you an ebook / training system for trading cryptocurrencies called Crypto Ultimatum - Catapult Yourself to Become One of the Extremely Rich People Using Cryptocurrencies written by Ethan W. It has its own YouTube channel as well, but that only has two videos (one of which is embedded as the site explainer).
The guide is originally billed at $200, but the website offers a discount at $50. If you go to buy the guide, it will offer an upsell subscription of $77 per quarter for ongoing, supplemental guides.
So what is going on here?
Someone made a (real or scam) cryptocurrency trading guide (Crypto Ultimatum) and is selling it for $50 a pop. They are paying for affiliates to market and advertise this product. The owner of Crypto Ultimatum gives 60% commission on affiliate sales, and urges you to affiliate-market their other ebooks on sports betting and weight loss.
These affiliates (Harry, in this case) are marketing the product by building sites that scrape the top cryptocurrency YouTube videos every hour and embed each one into a post on these blog sites with about 1000 words of randomly-generated text. This posting is done sequentially, so that they can link from one post to the other, back to the original on Top Crypto News. The blogs are all ‘operated’ by the same, ML-generated persona (Michael Mason, in this case) which has been created to serve as a nexus for these various free accounts.
The goal of Michael Mason and his blogs is just to link back to the advertising site for search engine optimization and legitimacy for Google’s Page Rank algorithm.
The goal of Top Crypto News is to advertise and drive buyers to click the affiliate-linked ads into the ecommerce site.
It seems like a lot of work to make over twenty accounts across all these platforms, but after that it’s relatively simple to write a script that will poll a YouTube RSS feed and create a blog post embedding it with generated text. And at $28 per sale, to the affiliate, it’s probably lucrative, and readily repeatable across other topics like weight loss and sports betting.
I started down this track thinking that this was a new tactic used by newly-minted cryptocurrency scammers, but it seems like this is just the same old tactics taken from gambling and fad diets, directly applied to the cryptocurrency moment. The affiliate marketer just added Narro to their SEO spam bag of tricks, and cryptocurrency is just the topic driving ebook sales right now.