Prioritizing Quality: Tackling the Covid-19 Spike in Survey Fraud Head-on

By Tim McCarthy, Imperium General Manager

The Covid-19 pandemic has already taken a devastating toll on the health of tens of millions of people across the globe. But it’s also opened up fresh opportunities for fraud from unscrupulous operators. News agency Reuters estimates that losses from coronavirus-related fraud and identity theft in the U.S. alone have reached nearly $100 million since March this year, with complaints about scams at least doubling in most states.

As you might expect, much of this criminal activity is targeted at ordinary American citizens – the kind of shopping scams and phony ‘cures’ that make capital out of misery, while creating massive anxiety for people already suffering from the physical, mental and economic distress caused by the pandemic.

But fraudsters are also causing consternation for businesses that rely on collecting accurate data – like the survey companies and panels we work with every day at Imperium. In a sector where trust is at a premium, any increase in fraudulent activity can undermine core intelligence gathering – and carry the potential for ruining hard-won reputations.

We know from our own experience that survey fraud has been on a steady incline since COVID-19’s first wave. In spring this year we identified a 25 percent increase in fraudulent survey respondents; more recently we have seen this spiking to around double the expected numbers. And, while we’re witnessing an inevitable rise in fraudsters trying to enter surveys, even verified respondents are providing less actionable insights in their open-ends (OEs) due to an increase in the poor OE rate of about 40-50 percent.

Dupe rates are particularly interesting: although they dipped at the outbreak of COVID-19, the numbers have not only bounced back but are now rocketing. Although it appears anomalous, there’s a logical reason for this pattern. As fears grew over the spread of the coronavirus earlier in the year, market research activities slowed correspondingly, reducing MR companies’ reliance on multi-sourcing for their projects and resulting in a greater-than-sufficient supply of respondents, with commensurately lower levels of overlap.

Over the past four or five months, however, with the market rapidly rebounding, the survey duplicate trend is swinging the other direction – as the number of projects-per-month is on a steep incline, it’s being accompanied by a sharp leveling-off in panelist supply. All of which means that MR agencies are now having to rely on multi-sourcing methods to meet their quotas. This supply-demand imbalance naturally fuels higher dupe rates which are likely to persist until the shortfall is rectified.

Event-driven impacts – like those we’re seeing as a result of the current crisis – will often lead to short- and medium-term problems, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving data accuracy in the long term. Some believe that adopting a more human-centric approach to data collection could help address some of the problems created by the wholesale movement of market research methodologies to online platforms. While there’s little likelihood of a return to the resource-intensive days of in-person interviews, online panels can contribute valuable, high-quality feedback, as long as we take the steps needed to maintain a powerful connection between brands and their consumers.

Survey companies have an important part to play in this dynamic by creating robust systems capable of withstanding the closest scrutiny. We know that surveys are all-too-easily inundated with bots, survey farms, and fraudsters, and that quotas can be easily met with misinformation. Offering brands access to millions of consumers only holds currency if you have the response rates to back your claims up.

We recommend taking an agile approach to research. Adopting more flexible methodologies enables the creation of a highly iterative model that allows you to engage more consistently and dig deeper for more granular information when necessary. This only works if you prioritize the respondent experience – providing a better UX will always result in better outputs.

Whatever approach you favor, implementing robust multi-level security measures is essential. Current conditions are creating a perfect storm for the depletion of trust in MR data: (1) the proliferation of fraudsters attempting to enter surveys, just as (2) MR companies are being forced to multi-source their projects, at a time when (3) real respondents are returning less actionable OE information. It’s more important than ever for research companies to incorporate the necessary tools into their surveys to ensure these conditions are not allowed to negatively impact the overall quality of the insights they are providing.

Tim McCarthy is General Manager at Imperium. He has over 15 years of experience managing market research and data collection services and is an expert in survey programming software, data analysis and data quality. Imperium is the foremost provider of technology services and customized solutions to panel and survey organizations, verifying personal information and restricting fraudulent online activities.

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