Inside the world of Lyft spam on Facebook
What happens if your profile picture ends up on a fake Facebook profile pushing ridesharing services? Hopes&Fears goes fishing for bots and talks to copyright experts.
Anyone who frequents Facebook event pages, especially those with a high number of people “going,” will have noticed energetic “people” posting Lyft referral codes. And while the idea of offering people a free ride to an event doesn’t seem malicious, it even sort of seems like a decent business model—eliminate the barrier for entry and people are bound to use your product more—something seemed off.
More often than not, these “energetic” people helping others to find Lyft don’t really exist. No friends, no public information, merely just a profile photo and possibly a cover image. Who are these pictures of? Who's making these fake accounts? And is it legal?
Bot talk and teen bloggers
Lyft bots frequently accept friend requests, but engaging them in conversation is a different story. Sometimes I would ask them how their day was, sometimes I would say I was new to town and thought maybe we could split a sweet Lyft to the party, but most of the time I would get straight to the point: “Are you a bot?” These efforts all seemed in vain until messaging one particular Lyft spammer named Fiona Nugent.
Fiona seemed pretty sweet; her profile picture a selfie with a friend, her background adorned with a beautifully furnished three story house alongside a lake, her coupon code “MURICA,” and her Lyft spam instructional yet friendly. I wondered if she could be some long lost daughter of Ted Nugent, though the resemblance was slight at best. She accepted my friend request and we even spoke, but our conversation was short-lived.
Fiona Nugent's Facebook profile
Reverse image searching each of the spammers' profile pictures provided clues as to their picture's origin. Searching for Fiona brings up dozens of websites using the same picture: a girl, posing for a selfie with a friend closeby. But the websites that seemed closest to its genesis were a WettPad blog and Vine account for “Tezney and Teoney.” Tezney Epicoco was a 16 year old blogger from the United Kingdom whose Twitter bio states: “Justin followed on 26/6/14. James Yammouni followed on 25/1/15. Belieber since 2010. Tired of getting treat like shit.” After connecting with Epicoco on Facebook, she helped clarify what was going on in the picture.
“This picture is of me and my younger sister Teoney," Epicoco tells me. "We have a YouTube channel together and [share a] Vine account. We first started blogging in 2012-13."
And for teen bloggers, posting pictures of yourself on social media is your lifeblood. "We took this photo before we were going to host a house party together. When we took it, we were just thinking about posting it to Facebook and various other social networking sites... but I didn't think anyone would steal it to use for themselves." What started as Epicoco's selfie expression was stolen for promotional hawking.
However unsettling, this sort of scenario didn't surprise Epicoco, who had once found a picture she had uploaded to Instagram "being used by a different account as their icon." And while no physical harm has come from the picture scalpers, it does take an emotional toll on those whose identities are being sold. "It makes you feel quite strange and invaded, to know that someone is using you to present themselves online. It makes you feel quite violated.”
For all of the invasiveness and sick feelings this had caused her, at least Epicoco had illustrated one thing: these weren’t bots, these were people.
Janet Sturges's Facebook profile
Your face could
While no one else would prove to be as vocal as Fiona, the reverse image searches always yielded some sort of result. Nona Crooks was a photo an Instagram user took of one of her best friends. Laura Wolfe was a frequently used image under the search term pair “girl” and “beanie.” Naomi Jones was a very processed image frequently used on Tumblr posts with the hashtag #sunglasses. Janet Sturges was a Shutterstock photo for “selfie.”
Janet Sturges’s stock photo, “Young redheaded girl taking selfie” would lead me to Shutterstock photographer Vladimir A. Much like Epicoco, Vladimir wasn't surprised.
“Almost all photographers who work for photo banks have a number of cases of such sort," Vladimir tells Hopes&Fears. "There are websites, for example http://allday2.com/, that buy photographs from photo banks and then offer [downloads], and doing this is against an original license agreement." Most license agreements include a takedown clause unless the photographer transferred all of their rights. Vladimir was no stranger to takedown notices, offering that "websites usually remove pictures if photographers ask them." And while certain photobanks do sell pictures for advertising purporses, "using photographs to create fake social media accounts is not allowed." So regardless if Lyft had even bothered to buy the pictures from Shutterstock, the accounts were still illegal.
Asking Vladimir about his course of action in such a case, he explained, "when I see that somebody uses my photographs illegally, my first thought is to contact their support team in order to block their account." And while all photographs made in public places could be used in some kind of editorial capacity, "you have to do it according to some moral rules.”
Other stock photographers Anton and Igor also expressed similar concerns. Anton told me how photos are stolen all of the time, by “TV channels, web sites, real estate agencies” while Igor explained how futile trying to get retribution or even trying to track down your work can be. “Big photo agencies like Shutterstock, Corbis, Alamy, sell tens of thousands of license permissions to use my photographs, it’s impossible to track them all down.”
And trying to decipher fraudulent accounts on a social network can be equally as vexing. Even after purging millions of profiles, Facebook still has over 140 million fake accounts that are still active (with the possibility of many more they still aren’t aware of). While the social network can deactivate false accounts, it simply can’t keep up with the technology, with software that can create up to 10k bot accounts at a time. But who was doing this?
erX: Seats 4+, Budget sedan
Uber BLACK: Seats 4+, LUXURY sedan
Uber SELECT: Seats 4+, HIGH-END sedan
UberXL: Seats 6+, Budget SUV
UberSUV: Seats 6+, LUXURY SUV
UberLUX: Seats 4+, GLAMOROUS + LUXURIOUS car option
UberPLUS: Seats 4+, HIGH-END sedan
Uber EXEC: Seats 4+, LUXURY sedan
PEDAL: Seats 4+, Car has a bike rack
UberFAMILY: Seats 4+, HIGH-END sedan or SUV with (1) children’s car seat & (2) booster seats
Conversing with Batman on Lyft's costumer service page
Batman and throwing drivers under the bus
My first instinct was to contact Lyft directly. What did they have to lose if they weren’t doing anything nefarious? I would give them a chance to clear up the situation, perhaps apologize to Tezney and Vladimir, and then I’d be on my way.
After emailing their public relations email address a handful of times, it seemed that Lyft wasn’t too interested in talking. But the startup company did have one thing going for it: a super transparent customer service page on their website. At Lyft’s Help Center, customers could field questions to be answered in real time by representatives from the company for other customers to see. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I included a couple of screen shots and fired off.
“Hey Lyft, I was curious about your Facebook marketing campaign. Are you paying for the photographs that you use to make fake Facebook accounts that share Lyft ads on event pages? Very curious, would love to talk to you over the phone if possible. Let me know.”
After a few moments, a man named Matt (aka Batman) chimed in that he needed more clarification. I thought it was a pretty obvious question, but I couldn’t ignore his request.
“Sure. There are ads on a lot of Facebook event walls that say something along the lines of 'Need a Lyft to the party? Try this free promo code' or a similar promotional pitch with a link to your site or some new Lyft promotion, but when I click on the Facebook user who posted it, the users always have zero friends and in most cases, the photos were taken from other websites, like Shutterstock or Instagram. I was wondering if Lyft was paying these companies for the photos, and who is in charge of posting under these fake accounts?"
Suddenly, Batman was joined by Joseph L.
“These are usually drivers that have taken it upon themselves to collect referrals. This is also against the agreement we have with them, and those drivers are usually deactivated when found out.”
Although sensible, they still needed to provide some kind of proof. I asked if they had any evidence of deactivations and they seemed to get suspicious. They sent me over their terms of service and a few minutes later I finally got an email back from Lyft’s corporate headquarters, but still lacking proof of the deactivations. There had to be others I could ask who would tell me if this was the truth.
Launched in 2012
Headquarters: San Francisco
Coverage of cities in the U.S., with no international presence
Harry Campbell's blog, The Rideshare Guy.
The Rideshare guy
There isn’t a lot of information about “Lyft bots” out there. A quick Google search only provides a smattering of references, most by people curious or poking fun at the phenomenon. But one search result seemed to have a certain amount of authority the others were lacking: The Rideshare Guy.
Basically a superhero of the rideshare community, Harry Campbell began driving for Lyft in 2014 and started his blog, The Rideshare Guy, as a resource for new drivers and those curious about the industry. “I was working as an engineer full time at Boeing and basically I just had a lot of free time on my hands," Campbell tells Hopes&Fears. "My wife was in Med school, so I was just looking for something to do. I'd been a frequent passenger of Uber and Lyft and the drivers were always telling me that, ‘Hey, we need new drivers.’ Later I realized that they would get a little referral bonus.”
These referral bonuses were no joke and are still a point of contention between the two companies. Campbell reflected, “That's actually how I signed up for Uber. I was driving with Lyft first and Uber offered a $500 bonus for Lyft drivers to come and try out Uber. All you had to do was one ride with Uber and you'd get a $500 signing bonus and that kind of shows you just how serious they are about it. That promotion is still around today in most markets but they changed the requirements a little bit...Recently, Lyft was offering $750 bonuses in certain cities, after you do 50 rides, so there's a lot of competition over drivers right now.”
But drivers were also getting bonuses for signing up new riders and even Harry reaped the benefits of these referrals. “I think Lyft is giving out $20 free rides in most markets. If you're a driver, you might get a $5 or $10 bonus with Lyft [for each person you sign up]...That's one of the ways that I monetize my site, too. I will write articles about Uber and Lyft and I will say at the bottom, ‘If you're considering signing up, here's my code to sign up with Uber.’ They pay out a bonus to me and a bonus to the new driver." When I asked Harry if this is where Lyft's reported $150 million budget for acquiring new customers goes, he didn’t deny it, but also stressed their other marketing strategies. “They have formed a partnership with a few baseball teams. They like to sponsor a lot of events. They have a ton of paid marketing, through things like Google Ads.” But at the end of the day, Lyft lacks the local branches that make a company like Uber so powerful. “They're both based in San Francisco, but Uber has a local office in L.A., Boston, Chicago, etc., whereas Lyft doesn't have a local presence in any other city."
When I asked Harry if he had seen any drivers deactivated for implementing their own brand of fraudulent promotion on Facebook, Harry seemed uninterested. “I think that they're more concerned with the actual fraud of rides and accounts. I haven't heard of many drivers being deactivated or anything like that for spamming or promoting their codes. If you go and look at any Uber or Lyft article on any mainstream site, there'll probably be 4 or 5 people spamming their code at the end of it, right? I suspect it's not legal, but I think that it's very commonplace.”
Fake Facebook accounts. Nona Crooks's picture was taken off of a friend's Instagram account, Oliver Oconnell's profile picture was a stock photo for "selfie."
Know your rights
When asked if a user whose identity is stolen should go as far as to sue, Karobonik didn't see it as practical, "especially if you are coming from outside the US trying to sue someone in the US. Trying to sue anyone internationally on copyright grounds is messy and very expensive," but she did offer a means of having justice served. "Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, there is a notice and takedown process where users can file a notice with any website." The original copyright holder must provide a couple of things, asserting that they do indeed own the photo and sending their information, but if it's a valid case, the photo would usually be taken down post haste. And while the person repurposing the photo would have the opportunity to counter notice, the stakes rise considerably, as Karobonik noted, "you accept jurisdiction within a federal court of the United States, so when you send a counter notice you're basically consenting to be sued." Of course, Facebook is no stranger to takedowns, as seen in their terms of service, providing their own simpler solution for getting content down in a few clicks.
And while individual takedown notices might not seem scary to a big company with referral codes to shed, getting a notice from a larger rights holder, i.e. Shutterstock or Getty, can get expensive really quickly, "including up to $150k per work infringed" and, in addition, "if the infringer loses, they essentially have to pay the other side's attorney fee."
Whether it's drivers trying to make a quick buck or a secret marketing strategy issued by a company that doesn't have the security of local branches, the stolen spam identities will continue to spread and live double lives online, energetically providing you with a ride to your event. But regardless of who's benefiting from the Lyft bots, when your online-likeness is being pimped for profit, the rides suddenly seem a lot less free.
Fakes and duplicates
There are 83 million fake Facebook profiles.
Duplicate accounts make up 4.8% (45.8 million) of Facebook's total active member tally
42% of marketers report that Facebook is critical or important to their business.