TECH
08/14/2019 09:00 EDT

Porn Grifters Are Chasing Teens On TikTok

Gen Z’s favorite app is dealing with an elaborate NSFW scam.

Chesnot via Getty Images

If you’re among the millions of people who use Instagram, you’re likely aware the platform is teeming with fake profiles posing as promiscuous women that will slide into your DMs with messages like: “Wanna chat? 😘🔥🔞” The goal behind these bot accounts is typically to lure users in with sexy photos that have been lifted from other pages, then trick them into signing up for erotic websites. As an image-based social network, Instagram has long been an ideal ecosystem for such scams to flourish.

But lately, porn grifters have been making their way to TikTok, according to a new report from cybersecurity firm Tenable. The short-video-sharing app has become explosively popular among teens in particular since launching one year ago in the U.S., and is now home to a shady operation involving impersonation, sexting — and Snapchat.

TikTok is “a huge platform with lots of users who are very engaged and active,” said report author Satnam Narang, who noted that TikTok appeals to grifters in part because of its young and potentially naive user base.  

Soon enough, he added, “it’s going to be a haven for scammers.”

TikTok/Courtesy of Tenable
Scammers are masquerading as young women on TikTok.

Here’s how the porn hoax works: The scammer will create a TikTok account and fill it with videos stolen from random women — usually showing them dancing or working out in revealing outfits. The captions, which often include popular hashtags that are more likely to get picked up by TikTok’s algorithm, will direct users to a separate Snapchat profile with messages such as, “Waiting in my 18+ Snapchat” or “More n.u.d.e items in my Snapchat.” (Splitting sex-related words up with periods is a common strategy to circumvent spam filters.)

These TikTok accounts can be quite successful: One viewed by HuffPost had more than 12,000 followers and 34,000 “hearts,” and posted videos of more than a dozen different women. The account was removed Tuesday after Tenable flagged it to TikTok.

TikTok users who take the scammer’s bait will then go to the promoted Snapchat profile. From here, the ruse will go in one of two directions: They may see a “Story,” or temporary post, showing a scantily clad woman (also a stolen photo or video) with text advertising a “Premium Snapchat” membership. (Snapchat doesn’t offer a “premium” version of the app; some people sell access to their private accounts where they claim to post “premium” NSFW content.)

TikTok/Courtesy of Tenable
TikTok users are being directed to Snapchat, where they can be scammed into paying for content they'll never receive.

The users will be instructed to swipe up on the Snapchat “Story” to access a hyperlink — a feature that isn’t available on TikTok, and is only available for a relatively small pool of users on Instagram. They’ll land on a page for an online payment service such as PayPal.

“As you can imagine, the users who pay for the supposed ‘premium’ Snapchat aren’t likely to get anything in return,” Narang wrote in his report, adding that the going rate is around $5 to $20.

Alternatively, the scammer may be engaged in an affiliate marketing scheme that’s more complex but could be more consistently lucrative. Affiliate marketing is an enterprise in which people can earn a commission by driving traffic and sign-ups to a certain website (fraudulently or otherwise). In this case, the scammer will post a “Story” on Snapchat often promising pornographic content for users who swipe up. Those who oblige will instead be redirected through a series of pages that will ultimately lead to an adult dating site.

TikTok/Courtesy of Tenable
Affiliate marketing programs have incentivized people to scam others into clicking fraudulent links.

For every user who signs up on the site, the scammer could receive $1 to $3, Narang said. Those who add their credit card information could be worth up to $50 for the scammer. It’s a hoax with low overhead costs and a potentially high return on investment.

Porn grifters have set their sights on TikTok as a starting level for their scams to try to cash in on its meteoric rise as a video-sharing app for young people. 

Masquerading as attractive women has proven to be a highly effective way to draw in followers on TikTok in particular. One account impersonating YouTube star Liza Koshy managed to accumulate nearly half a million followers, and was verified by the app. (TikTok told HuffPost the verification was done in error. The account was removed on Tuesday.) It’s also easier to go viral in general on TikTok than on other platforms. The porn scam accounts that Narang reviewed had an average of 650 followers, whereas on Instagram, such profiles rarely gain traction.

“TikTok has strict policies safeguarding users against fake, fraudulent or misleading content. We flag and remove most spam accounts before they can reach users’ feeds, and we continuously improve our protections, even as malicious actors work to evade our safeguards,” said a TikTok spokesperson, who noted that the company has taken down each of the accounts identified by Tenable. “As part of our regular process, we constantly review the tactics of malicious accounts to further strengthen our systems.”

Eliminating online scammers is most often a cat-and-mouse game, warned Narang.

“They’ll continue to find unique ways of getting around any detection methods that are in place for TikTok to remove them,” he said. “As long as there’s some sort of way to make money, they’re going to find ways to take advantage of the platform.”