It was a Davos for digital hucksters. One day last June, scammers from around the world gathered for a conference at a renovated 19th century train station in Berlin. All the most popular hustles were there: miracle diet pills, instant muscle builders, brain boosters, male enhancers. The “You Won an iPhone” companies had display booths, and the “Your Computer May Be Infected” folks sent salesmen. Russia was represented by the promoters of a black-mask face peel, and Canada made a showing with bot-infested dating sites.
They’d come to mingle with thousands of affiliate marketers—middlemen who buy online ad space in bulk, run their campaigns, and earn commissions for each sale they generate. Affiliates promote some legitimate businesses, such as Amazon.com Inc. and EBay Inc., but they’re also behind many of the shady and misleading ads that pollute Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest of the internet.
The top affiliates—virtually all of them young men—assemble a few times a year to learn the latest schemes and trade tips about gaming the rules set by social networks and search platforms. They think of themselves as kin to the surfers-slash-bank-robbers of the 1991 movie Point Break, just more materialistic, jetting from nightclub to Lamborghini race while staying a step ahead of the authorities. One San Diego crew took in $179 million before getting busted last year by the Federal Trade Commission for violating three laws governing online conduct.