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Since I seem to be on every major job search site known to man, I'm no stranger to the world of spam. Most of the stuff found through job searches comes up as pretty benign and transparent ploys to convince you to get hooked into someone's multi-level-marketing/ work-at-home strategy, most of which is easily dispatched of by a simple click of the mouse and the delete button.
So it came as no surprise when a company that gave the appearance of starting up an online newspaper approached me not long ago. The email was the typical "we got your resume and think you would be PERFECT for the position of ___." which I had seen countless times before. I wasn't fooled by the slick way they included all the little details that most people looking for a job want: good pay, great benefits, etc. All of it was just too good to be true. Which of course, made me suspicious. So like any good investigative reporter, I decided to do a little digging before signing on the line to see what this was all about.
USAVOICE.org is a slick little website with a less-than-subtle "USA Today" appearance - all looking very official and media-like. As you go there now, it looks like any other legitimate news site, complete with multiple columnists, departments, breaking news, up to the minute stock reports local weather, etc.
However, how the company runs it's business seems a bit peculiar.
It works like this: USAVoice wants to sign up as many people as possible to fill the site with various articles and news stories. They actively recruit for new employees to help them become "the world's fastest growing news organization" and have managed to blanket every journalism and job site possible with this ploy. Their ads have been everywhere, including college newspapers, print classified ads and craigslist postings in no-doubt every city craigslist posts to.
However, once you have been selected to be an employee of the company, they explain how they want you to (as they put it) "Create a mailing List of people you know to build traffic to your stories." In other words, you build a list full of people with valid email addresses that you then convince to visit your articles on the site over and over. Every time you write an article, you notify your readers of the update. What the article actually says, or whether or not the viewer even reads the article matters very little. The article is only there as a vehicle for all of the click-through advertising that peppers the page. The author of the article then gets a small percentage of the profits.
Here is how they put it:
"Reporters at USAVoice will receive 40% of income generated by advertising on USAVoice. Each reporter will earn a percentage of that revenue equivalent to the percentage of total page views generated by his/her stories appearing on USAVoice.
Total revenue - $850,000 this month
Total page views on ALL stories: 2,500,000
Each page view worth: 14¢
Reporter A generated 15,000 page views on all stories
Reporter A's income this month - $2,100"
Those number look really impressive, don't they? "Reporter A" makes $2,100 for his work on the site. Of course, this is only if "Reporter A" can convince fifteen thousand people to not just read the article, but click on the advertising on the page. And this is only if USAVoice makes $850,000 in click-through advertising revenue. If USAVoice doesn't make that much in revenue... and if you only get a few thousand people to read your article... and out of that, perhaps only 10% of those people click on the ads... you end up making pocket lint. Of course, the developers who are taking 60% of every click of an ad still make money hand over fist.
The other way the company suggests "generating readership" is to mail links of your articles to any number of forums that the company has collected. So not only do you spam your friends with advertising, but you are encouraged to spam other lists as much as possible also. The more you spam, the more people come to the site and MIGHT click on the advertising, the more the developers make money.
My guess is that these mailing lists each writer creates probably also reside on the company's server, thereby allowing them to access the list for other purposes like more spam, or just selling the addresses to a second-hand spammer outright.
I followed the instructions of the site to learn a little more about the company and I sat in on the conference call that they had set up for new employees. Included in the call was a slideshow explaining the above example of potential income that employees could make working for the company. They also showed some of the requirements that each employee must do to be a part of the team, such as setting up a completely separate business phone line in their house at their own expense. I'm not really sure why employees were required to do this and what USAVoice's take on that deal would be, but that was part of the requirements. This was starting to sound really fishy. Why do I need a business phone line? I'm writing articles and submitting them to the site. Who would be calling me?
The organizer of the call really did a good job of buttering up the potential candidates. Some people that were selected had absolutely no writing skills whatsoever. None! Now, a normal person might question why a legitimate news site would have little or no interest in their reporter's writing abilities. USAVoice explains this by saying that they want to have a fresh style with their articles, not driven by the typical AP style guidelines. (yeah, like spelling, grammar, fact checking...)
Doing a Google search for the site comes up with more discussions about scams than anything else. They're being talked about all over the place.
So what makes all of this suspicious:
- You don't get paid by the word or the number of articles submitted, you just get a percentage of a percentage of the total number of people that click on the advertising.
- You have to build a "mailing list" of people that you can spam to to get them to visit the site and click on the ads.
- You have to have a business phone line installed in your house at your expense.
And here is the final nail in the coffin about the legitimacy of this news service:
Some simple investigating on the site turns out that the IP address that usavoice.org uses is shared with two other domains, which were set up by a gentleman named Ayman El-Difrawi, who also goes by several different aliases and spellings of his name. Doing a search on Difrawi comes back with some really interesting information. It seems that he was convicted of (among other things) conspiracy to commit bank fraud, false financial reporting, conspiracy to defraud the media, sexual harassment, child abuse, unpaid restitution and was a key player in one of the largest internet fraud scams in American history.
And according to the various press releases I've found scattered around the net, he's also running for congress.
During the conference call, if you had a question during the Q&A portion, you would have to shout out your city location and whoever the person who started the call heard, she would call on. Thanks to a strong voice, I was heard among the cacophony of people yelling out their location all at once. I thanked the organizers for their time in organizing the conference call and then carefully asked what the connection was between USAVoice and this convicted con artist. The person responded with typical press secretary flair, and stated that there was no connection at all with this person,didn'tdidnt know who that person was and they are not working for the company.
Shortly after the question was brought up, more people on the call started raising similar questions about the legitimacy of the company and allegations that it was a scam. Strangely enough, the conference started experiencing technical difficulties which quickly ended the call altogether.
Bingo. A little simple research was all that was needed to see right through the guise. The site works very hard to convince these people that they are genuine journalists, part of a legitimate news service. They even talk about having business cards printed and getting press passes for the writers. But the harsh reality is that these "journalists" are really nothing more amateurature bloggers generating click-through revenue for the guys at the top.
And the best part about this is that technically, there seems to be nothing illegal about what Difrawi is doing. He doesn't appear to be breaking any laws that I can see. What he is doing with USAVoice is no different than what other sites are doing with their click-through advertising commissions. Difrawi is simply using a tactic to employ hundreds of people to convince thousands of viewers to help him make money with click-through advertising. Its not illegal, but at the very least its a bit shady. But as our own government has shown, you can't really be arrested for just being shady.
Bottom line: as the old saying goes and USAVoice and Alec Difrawi prove, if something is too good to be true, it probably is.
UPDATE: Since posting this article, the response has been overwhelming. Thank you to everyone for all the letters of encouragement. Rest assured, we will continute to update Media Morgue whenever we get new information.
For the latest update on what the USAVOICE has been up to, click here.
For a detailed look into Alec Defrawy and his connection with USAVOICE, click here.
Interested in filing a complaint with the FBI about USAVOICE? Read this.
Interested in writing for Media Morgue? read this.
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