Any honest SEO will tell you that, unfortunately, this business seems to attract more than its fair share of scam artists. What makes it worse is the number of people who claim to be SEOs and think they know what they're doing, but discover they don't the next time Google runs an update. Sometimes, we read about a particularly egregious scammer, and feel a need to spread the word.
The latest scammer worthy of note may not have hit the newspapers with the force that JC Penney's mistake did early last year, but it seems to have caused a lot more pain on a personal level for those who were taken in. The short version of this story, like Penney's, is all about link building, with one big difference: the guy collecting the money for the service never came through – and he mostly didn't give refunds to angry customers, either.
The story came up for discussion on our SEO Chat forums. Understand, though, that the scammer himself DIDN'T appear on our forums. As one of our fearless moderators notes, “He would never get away with that BS here.” The dodgy character showed up on a completely different forum (which shall remain nameless) as a new member. He offered a link building service that, as described and for the amount of money being asked, was “too good to be true” to anyone who knows anything about SEO.
I won't link to the thread on the other forum here, or use that business's name (or the name of the scammer's business). I will only say that the other forum has been established long enough to really make you wonder how this could have happened; one would think there were enough experienced people around as members there to read the red flags a lot sooner. (Buyer beware!).
The scammer's offer on the other forum kicks off a 17-page thread that starts June 10 – when the scammer himself had just joined the forum the previous month. The scammer asks for half the money in advance, the remaining half when the work is done, and promises top results for keywords in Google. The price quoted for the work is under $150 – ridiculously low for this kind of service, especially since he's claiming to be totally white hat and promising results within four to eight weeks. Besides, nobody can guarantee their clients the top spot in Google.
Nevertheless, the scammer gets some interest and sign-ups. By the third page of the thread, some are asking for proof of the scammer's work and want to know what kind of link building he does. He apparently sends proof in private messages, and addresses other questions. By page seven, though, there are signs of discontent. We're now up to July 4, and one of his earliest customers is asking if their report has been sent out yet. The scammer reminds users to be patient; reports are monthly, and it hasn't quite been a month yet.
The scammer's customers are definitely starting to get restless. Several note that they haven't seen any movement or results for their websites, and are wondering if anyone else has. Yet some are still buying the package he's offering. On page nine, just a day or two later, with lots of people asking for a report, the scammer seems to have gone silent, at least temporarily.
By this time, almost everyone is noticing little or no movement on the keywords for which they signed up – and what little movement they do see could be due to efforts other than the scammer's. An example post: “Now, only 2 of my 20 keywords are in the top 1000 (not 100, 1000). Meanwhile, keywords that I have been working on myself have made good moves into the top 100 in the same period of time (similar competitiveness too).”
So the scammer begins his stalling and delaying tactics, trying to avoid sending out any reports. On page ten of the thread, one of the posters notes that he did research on the company before signing up, and found a YouTube testimonial for the services. He was reassured – until he found the person who did the testimonial on Fiverr. Fiverr, in case you aren't familiar with it, is an Israeli-based company that offers an online marketplace where users can sell their services for $5, sometimes with add-ons. Often, the service involves producing a short video and sending it to the buyer. The Fiverr gig for the person who gave the scammer a YouTube testimonial was...doing a video testimonial. Yeah, that's at least a little suspicious.
Next, one forum poster notes that the scammer hasn't even optimized his own website to appear in the top 10 pages of Google for the keyword “SEO.” The forum's members are starting to notice other discrepancies between the scammer's claims and what they've been able to find out about him publicly, as well – such as his claim of 10 years of SEO experience, and the fact that his business website was registered in May of 2012 (coincidentally, the same month he registered as a member for that forum). Still, the scammer manages to explain these discrepancies away.
By page 11 – July 23 – forum members are asking for refunds. In fact, some members have been asking for refunds for a week and haven't gotten them yet. Also, another fake testimonial from a different Fiverr user got posted and identified.
By page 12 – July 28 -- the scammer is starting to send a few refunds here and there. Some of them are in the form of echecks that supposedly take three to five days to clear. On this page, one of the forum members notes his experience with echecks: “an echeck refund is used as a refund because there is no money in a seller's PayPal account (been withdrawn), or it's used to buy time.” And in fact, echecks are not clearing in this situation.
By the bottom of this page, forum members are starting to hunt down information about the scammer and noting discrepancies in his PayPal account and his Whois for his business website. By August 1 (page 13), it's become obvious to everyone that this was a scam. One poster reports that the scammer has even taken down his own website, and his e-mail doesn't work anymore. By the bottom of page 13, someone has found a post related to the scammer on another forum; apparently, he's been conning people since 2009 at least.
But wait, it gets better. By August 2, someone turns up an article about the scammer pleading guilty to four counts of extortion and receiving a suspended sentence. And eventually, it appears that he returns to the forum – under a different name, with a different offer.
What can you learn from this? Thoroughly investigate any claims or offers. Don't just listen to testimonials; get references. Be very suspicious if and when the information you're getting doesn't hold together. And for any deal, not just SEO, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is just that. Good luck!