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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: 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?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 9, 2009; 12:26 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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I play Farmville and it's a lot of fun, if a little repetitive. I haven't seen too many intrusive ads, and I haven't spent a dime. I do think that it encourages too many posts to status updates, but I skip most of those so I don't annoy my friends who aren't playing Farmville.

Posted by: greatscott47 | November 9, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Every time someone discovers a new game I have to block it. I wish there was a "block all games" setting.

Posted by: wiredog | November 9, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I play Mafia Wars, a fun diversion. Have never spent a cent but I have looked at the "offers" for "Free" points to enhance your character. In my opinion, anyone who has any internet savvy at all, would be very foolish to sign up for any of those. Every one of them sets off my spam/ripoff alarm. If you really must, just buy the damn things directly and consider that you're supporting the company which provides the game that you enjoy.

Posted by: Jasper5 | November 9, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

"Does hearing about these problems have you rethinking your involvement with these games?"

Yes. It causes me to rethink and reaffirm my past decision not to involve myself in Facebook games, surveys, etc. I use Facebook like I use LinkedIn for business, but for friends instead. I dial down the information sharing in the preferences. Friends and I exchange news but that is it. I also make it easy for people to find me. I don't use Facebook for anything else except keeping in touch with friends.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | November 9, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

As a newbie to both Farmville and Mafia Wars, it's easy to understand why these "get points free" scams work so well. I linked to some and passed on their services after discovering the don't really offer anything useful. though I have been bitten in the past, I am an now a more experienced internet user and can recognize a scam. The scammers are counting on the less experienced and making a killing. Many of the users are internet novices and from other countries.
Seems like almost everything on the net and TV is a scam anymore, as well as most telemarketing calls. Looks like instead of making things anymore, a significant business in the US is based on scamming/tricking people out of their money, i.e., mortgage debt relief, credit repair, etc.

Posted by: maiapapaya | November 9, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

The post doesn't do a very good job of republishing TechCrunch, there are many bizarre articles like this:

Posted by: subwayguy | November 9, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I play numerous games on Facebook, and am amazed at the number of people who fall for those scams. No wonder phishers and scammers continue to opperate!

Posted by: Sara | November 9, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I played Mafia Wars but did not pay for anything or access any of the ads. There are frequent messages inviting you to buy items and usually below the company invitation there is a list of other places to go to for additional purchases. Perhaps those new to online gaming would be tempted to use one of those links. However, gamers experienced with online gaming whether it be mmogs or social gaming have been warned for years to avoid those sites as they are often scams or may even place malware on your computer. It's not just the financial scams that make such links unacceptable, it's the possibility that they may infect your computer and compromise your security. Would it be fair to ask that the game company moderate all links found on the game site and remove any and all links that contain scams or malware? I think that if they are encouraging people to spend money for game items, then game companies should be responsible for keeping the gaming platform clean.

Posted by: Loviane | November 9, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I stopped reading this article due to 'information overload-' too many links backs to other information. Made my head hurt! I appreciate some relevant links, but sheesh.

Posted by: BlueberryFiles | November 9, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I play mafia wars and have done a few of the "offers," but only for things that I was planning on doing buy flowers online through 1-800-flowers for mother's day. I may have gotten scammed, but I don't think so...I haven't had any problems with my computer, my card wasn't charged anything random, and the flowers arrived as scheduled.

Posted by: anon82 | November 9, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I don't do much of that FB stuff but I must have fallen for something because I regularly receive notice that a third party is trying to text me. There would be a charge if I hadn't asked Verizon to block all third party texts. I never knowingly accepted anything like this and only FB could have gifted me. Now I am REALLY careful.

Posted by: gsdlea | November 9, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

I learned long ago that you never get something for nothing. I play a couple of games on FB but never click on any of the ads, and I don't post any updates. Though several of my friends do and it does get annoying to see 4 or 5 posts in a row that someone just bought a tree. These people are going after the younger users, or more novice computer users, who don't know the ways of spam. I hope FB does a better job of stopping this stuff.

While I am at it, I would like to see the ads about google paying $125 an hour to sit at home to stop. FB knows these ads are bogus but keeps letting them put ads up.

Posted by: jtsw | November 9, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Thats awful that these companies let you play their games for free! I'dd rather no ads and pay lots of money to do anything on the internet. If you aren't detecting the sarcasm here then you should work at home through google for $125 an hour.

Posted by: LessCrappy | November 10, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

For a company the size of Facebook they sure do make a lot of blunders. Initially I was a fan of the site, but after numerous invitations to join or play this or that, only to discover they wanted my cell number so they could charge me, I dropped out of FB. It's now just a great idea gone horribly bad.

Posted by: panamacanuck | November 11, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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