Facebook game offers slammed as scams
Those weird games that half your friends on Facebook can't seem to leave alone might be more than a harmless waste of time. In a series of blog posts over the past two weeks, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington has attacked the developers of these games for deceptive in-game ads that lure the unwary into signing up for irrelevant or outright useless subscriptions to third-party services.
In a post titled "ScamVille: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell," Arrington described ads on Facebook and other social-networking sites that offer players of such games as Mafia Wars and FarmVille "free" points to upgrade their characters. Instead of directly paying to get ahead in the game, all people have to do is fill out a survey or accept an allegedly free trial offer. But as ever, there's a catch:
Most of these offers are bad for consumers because it confusingly gets them to pay far more for in-game currency than if they just paid cash (there are notable exceptions, but the scammy stuff tends to crowd out the legitimate offers).
Arrington listed such unsavory examples as an IQ survey that can get a $9.99 charge tacked onto your cellphone bill every month -- a high price to re-learn the principle that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. He also wrote that experienced users can game the system themselves, ripping off legitimate advertisers who expect to generate honest sales leads through these ads.
(Disclosures: Washingtonpost.com republishes TechCrunch articles. Washington Post Co. chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook's board of directors. Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly, on leave to pursue elected office, is a friend from college.)
Since that post, two companies involved in this business have promised to change their ways, while Facebook has pledged to step up its scrutiny of ads and kicked one game off the popular social-networking site.
For example, Offerpal Media, a Fremont, Calif., company that serves up some of these in-game ads, replaced chief executive and founder Anu Shakla. New CEO George Garrick promptly posted an apology of sorts on the company's blog, writing that "Offerpal has been guilty of distributing offers of questionable integrity from some of our many advertisers" and pledging to do better.
At San Francisco-based Zynga, the author of Mafia Wars, FarmVille, Vampires and other social games, chief executive Mark Pincus blogged that the company would tighten up its policies on ads. But a few days later, Arrington observed some of the same dubious pitches as ever -- resulting in Facebook shutting down Zynga's new FishVille game. In a follow-up yesterday, Pincus blamed the recurrence of those ads on a problem with an advertising provider and said the company would remove all of these ads until it could control them properly.
This is a big story that I missed -- not only have I not signed up for any of these games, I routinely block updates about them from friends. (I waste enough hours on the site just thinking up new witticisms to share.) If you've spent any time on these social games, I'd like to hear your take on this. Did you see any of these allegedly scammy offers? Were you tempted to sign up for any of them? Does hearing about these problems have you rethinking your involvement with these games?
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