A new scheme attempts to defraud Smart TV customers by using YouTube as a weapon and enlisting the assistance of an unlikely source: Google Search.
So, you've just purchased a new Smart TV – perhaps one with Amazon's Fire TV or Roku built-in – and you're excited to watch your favorite YouTube channels on your big screen.
You download the YouTube app, but before you can start watching the latest uploads from your favorite channels, a pop-up with an activation code comes on the screen. To your devices, the pop-up instructs you to enter the code at the URL "youtube.com/activiate." YouTube requests data so that it can link your existing account to its TV app, including your history and subscribed channels.
If you type that domain into your web browser on your computer or phone, you'll get to the official YouTube website, where you can easily activate your account. In seconds, you'll be watching YouTube on your new television.
Automatically types everything into Google, including a URL. Let's say scammers are grateful you're that type of person.
Mashable has discovered a fraud using the YouTube activation screen on Smart TVs as a weapon. And the fraudsters would be unable to carry out the scheme without the help of Google, YouTube's parent corporation.
Scammers' tactics for attracting YouTube users
The con is simple to understand. When a user goes to activate the YouTube app on their TV, Google searches the URL that appears on the screen, and they end up on a false activation webpage that looks exactly like the official YouTube page. It's very evident that not based on its design alone, but scammers often do this on purpose to target the least tech-savvy.
When a person dials that number, they to what appears to be a call center in another country. The customer that they are a YouTube employee who can troubleshoot the issue.
The "troubleshooting" entails persuading the user that to "activate" the service, YouTube must charge a refundable fee to their credit card or bank account. When a new user ties their latest version to an outside service, such as a checking account with a bank, services like PayPal or Venmo may charge this fee, typically around $1 or less. A user will rarely run across a similar process outside of financial service providers, especially when it comes to free social media services like YouTube.
The scammer is counting on users being unaware of the process.
Mashable has confirmed that consumers have lost hundreds of dollars, if not thousands of dollars, due to this fraud by individuals who prefer to stay anonymous. This scam was first brought to my attention by a family member who was a victim.
Scammers on the phone employ social engineering techniques to keep consumers on the line for hours at a time, telling them that they are genuine YouTube representatives who will install the app for free on their TV. Users will transfer large sums of money through irreversible services such as Zelle or Uber's online gift card store, believing that they are interacting with an actual YouTube employee once the service is activated.
The role of Google in the ruse
This con would not be possible without a big hand from YouTube's parent firm, Google.
When a user types "youtube.com/activation" into Google, the top result is an official page from the firm with instructions on setting up the YouTube app on their Smart TV legally.
This page, on the other hand, is named "Connect a Device - Google." Not the most prominent name for a page, especially for older, less tech-savvy, or those who are unaware of Google's YouTube relationship. Browsing for this URL wants to install the YouTube app.
Isn't this all perfectly legal? The page's title is the YouTube activation URL. "Enter YouTube activation code," it even reads. To a "google.com" URL on the website.
The scammers appear to have realized that many people prefer to Google search for the YouTube URL rather than entering it indirectly. Scammers can quickly build up a phony website using Google's free website services "sites.google.com" because the search results page on Google is quite limited. Any user can create a webpage on Google's domain here. The fraudster then labeled the page "YouTube.com/Activate" to help it rank higher on Google and make it stand out when a user searches for it.
The Google Search results page underneath that fraudster website
crowded with bogus websites attempting to fool viewers into thinking it's the accurate YouTube activation site.
The URL for YouTube's official Smart TV activation page does not appear in a Google search for "youtube.com/activate" since the "youtube.com/activate" URL redirects to a Google.com webpage. Instead, it shows as the "Connect a Device" page on a Google URL, shown in the screenshot above.
How effective is this ruse?
It's unknown how much money the crooks are making off of this YouTube scam. However, many factors lead us to believe that running this plan was highly profitable.
The autocomplete results are also a good indicator. When you type "youtube.com" into Google Search, the autocomplete feature offers three different search suggestions, all of which include the "youtube.com/activate" page at the top.
What factors does Google consider when determining to autocomplete results?
"We look at genuine Google searches and show popular and trending ones that are relevant to the character's input," Google claims on its website.
As a result, popular searches predictions, implying that many people are looking for the URL "youtube.com/activate."
Another way to tell if this scam worked is to look at a YouTube channel that ranks high in the search results for "youtube.com/activate."
The channel, titled "youtube.com/activate," follows the scammers' technique of finding easy-to-rank keywords that many people search for and ranking for them.