How TikTok’s bad influencers are hurting businesses

The video-sharing platform’s built-in virality means that information about fraudulent ways for hard-pressed consumers to get one over on businesses can spread far and wide 
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Tesco started to notice that something was wrong last summer when its confectionery shelves were being emptied at an unprecedented rate. Shoppers were coming into its supermarkets across the UK and clearing out their stocks of Skittles, M&M’s, Maltesers, Fruit Pastilles and Starbursts. 

It took a little while for managers to understand what was happening. It turned out that people were exploiting a glitch in the self-checkout software, which had been exposed by the £1 discount vouchers that Tesco had issued for certain sweets. These were meant to be single-use coupons, but in practice they could be applied several times – as shoppers quickly realised. 

When such things happen, social networks enable the word to spread fast. TikTok was the main conduit in this case. The so-called Tesco method, which one TikTok user called “the biggest coupon fraud scam that’s ever hit the UK”, became the focus of hundreds of clips on the video-sharing platform. Smartphone-toting shoppers shared footage of themselves walking out of stores fully laden with free sweets, encouraging more copycats in the process. Tesco responded by posting signs at its checkouts threatening to prosecute anyone trying the same trick. 

These obviously aren’t ‘finance hacks’. They are crimes

The Tesco method is far from the only Robin Hood-style scam that has spread via TikTok. In recent examples, users in the US have highlighted ways to obtain bank loans for personal use by setting up a fake business and to commit leasing fraud by providing fake documents. 

Such methods are typically presented as simple money-making exercises – ways to outsmart businesses that have been lax enough to leave loopholes – rather than offences involving deception. 

“These obviously aren’t ‘finance hacks’. They are crimes,” says Carl Wearn, head of threat intelligence analysis and future ops at Mimecast. “The individuals using them are clearly, and often knowingly, exploiting what they perceive to be flaws in an offer – Tesco’s barcoded vouchers, for instance – and are in essence committing fraud to obtain property.”

Why is fraud spreading online?

Even so, the sharing of fraudulent methods, including advice on how to obtain and use stolen credit card information, is catching on fast. The #methods hashtag, under which such tips are traded, has become particularly popular with a certain demographic in the UK over the past six months. It’s estimated that almost 90% of those watching #methods videos on TikTok are aged between 18 and 24. 

TikTok’s culture of scamming is proving exceedingly lucrative and effortless

Some recommendations are posted instead under the #financialliteracy hashtag, which has attracted 1.2 billion views on the app. These have included videos suggesting that you don’t necessarily have to pay your bills under US consumer law. Such hacks are typically presented as personal success stories, along with the implicit message that everyone is doing it. This aspirational aspect is another part of what makes such material so dangerous, notes Gavin Cunningham, partner and head of forensic services at accounting firm Menzies. 

“Two decades ago, no one would have taken, say, tax advice from a flyer that had been posted through their door,” he says. “Because such information is instantly available, people tend to believe that it’s real, accurate and honest.”

Other videos that have proved popular on TikTok have been posted by users professing to have bought two pairs of trainers – an authentic pair from a shop and a cheap counterfeit copy online – and then returned the fakes to the shop for a refund while keeping the genuine ones. Another suggests that people can somehow reduce their tax liability by buying a car on credit and then selling it after depreciating its value on their return.

And it’s not only financial scams that TikTok is helping to promulgate. Other forms of deception are being normalised on the platform, including the idea that it’s acceptable for job applicants to lie about their experience on their CVs. One woman went viral for saying that she routinely searched YouTube for guidance on how to do her job because she had overstated her qualifications to her employer during the selection process and couldn’t perform the tasks assigned to her. 

Why TikTok is a natural breeding ground for fraud

It should come as no surprise that, just like any other digital watercooler, TikTok has become a place where people trade tips on how to get one over on big business. 

“TikTok’s culture of scamming is proving exceedingly lucrative and effortless,” says Tom Divon, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem specialising in social media, communications and culture. “This phenomenon can be attributed partly to the ease with which one can adopt a fraudulent persona on the platform.”

There’s also a degree of fame to be had by sharing such tips, especially in an inflationary period when consumers are more likely to feel that they’re getting ripped off by profit-hungry corporations. 

“TikTok is home to a diverse range of influencers who are reputed to possess knowledge of various legal and financial hacks,” Divon says. “These influencers have earned social capital by showcasing an altruistic approach in their videos that appeals to the communal sensitivities of viewers who feel burdened by the ‘robbery culture’,” he says.

This phenomenon can be attributed partly to the ease with which one can adopt a fraudulent persona on the platform

This is, naturally, a trend that TikTok is keen to quell. It says: “As more people seek financial information online, it’s important that we help our community to access the right support and tips. We have strict community guidelines, which make it clear that we do not permit anyone to exploit our platform to bring about financial or personal harm. We remove content and accounts that violate these policies.” 

The platform adds that it has partnered with the UK Citizens Advice service and recently launched a #savingmoney hub offering legitimate financial guidance for consumers.

Nonetheless, while millions of households struggle to make ends meet as the cost-of-living crisis continues, any money-saving tip – whatever its legality – will hold some appeal to cash-strapped social media users. 

For that reason, firms may want to monitor TikTok to keep an eye out for any conversations mentioning their name. It can be useful to search for posts featuring the hashtags typically used to promote these kinds of scams, for instance, to check whether your business crops up.

Another way to combat viral fraud, of course, is to prevent it by ensuring that your systems aren’t left open to easy hacks in the first place. 

“Brands are often keen to exploit electronic means of redemption precisely because these are quick and easy to use for discounts,” Wearn says. “But, in my experience, they rarely put the appropriate measures in place to properly mitigate the exploitation of such schemes by human ingenuity. As long as organisations use half-measures when it comes to security, the issue will persist.”