Ordinary Americans are using armies of phones to generate cash to buy food, diapers, and beer through ad fraud.
Netflix thought I was four different people. I was being paid through an app to watch its trailers over and over again, racking up digital points I could eventually trade for Amazon gift cards or real cash. But rather than just use my own phone, I bought four Android devices to churn through the trailers simultaneously, bringing in more money.
I made a small “phone farm,” able to fabricate engagement with advertisements and programs from companies like Netflix, as well as video game trailers, celebrity gossip shows, and sports too. No one was really watching the trailers, but Netflix didn’t need to know that. The goal was to passively run these phones 24/7, with each collecting a fraction of a penny for each ad they “watched.”
Hobbyists and those looking to make a bit of money across the U.S. have been doing the same, buying dozens or hundreds of phones to generate revenue so they can afford some extra household goods, cover a bill, buy a case of beer, or earn more income without driving for Uber or delivering for Grubhub. The farms are similar to those found overseas, often in China, where rows and rows of phones click and scroll through social media or other apps to simulate the engagement of a real human. Every few months, a video of these Chinese farms goes viral, but in bedroom cupboards, stacks in corners of living rooms, or custom setups in their garage, American phone farmers are doing a similar thing, albeit on a smaller scale.