Potential of fraud in online recruiting raises red flags

Watch for link hijacking

Researchers using the Internet for recruitment and for electronic surveys have discovered that problems with online fraud can undermine the ease and efficiency of Web-based recruiting, an expert says.

"It's a huge problem that online surveys with significant competition have high fraud rates," says Joe Konstan, distinguished McKnight professor and distinguished university teaching professor in the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

This can undermine the research and result in invalid results, he explains.

"I've seen examples of studies where they had to throw out well into the double-digit responses because they detected fraud," Konstan says.

"If it takes 10,000 responses to get 1,000 valid ones, it might be okay," he adds. "But if you take 10,000 and think you have 1,000 valid ones when in reality you might only have 100, is it worth putting subjects to any risk whatsoever when you can't count on the data you're getting back?"

This is the sort of question IRBs should consider when reviewing a survey that will rely on Internet recruitment.

"If results are sufficiently in doubt, there might not be any benefit," Konstan says.

IRBs could suggest a few precautions to reduce the risk of recruitment fraud, including these:

Do not overcompensate. "Make sure you're not overcompensating," Konstan advises. "Any survey with a compensation of $100 will have a lot of attempted fraud."

Make screening more complicated. Surveys that require potential participants to answer a number of questions before being eligible for recruitment can help reduce fraud attempts.

"Have them go through enough of a process that you have greater confidence that someone online cannot sneak in," Konstan says.

Watch for link hijacking. "A recent study I worked on had a very small population they were trying to reach, and they marketed the study on websites specifically directed to that population," Konstan recalls. "But someone picked up the survey and put a link somewhere that marketed making money online, so this study had a lot of fraudulent attempts — mostly from out of the country."

Sometimes this phenomenon can be observed by examining IP addresses of respondents. However, that is not foolproof. In the case Konstan mentions, the contacts appeared to originate in the United States.

Investigators should check readily online to see if their survey link pops up in places where it does not belong, he suggests.

Look for consistency. "Look for consistency across different sessions, and if those do not match, this should raise flags," Konstan says. "Have principal investigators constantly screen for fraudulent responses."

Look for sloppy responses. Respondents who rush through the survey could be part of a fraudulent scheme, he says.

Hire professionals. "Another way is to have a professional survey center handle this for you," Konstan says. "You design the survey, and they'll do it."