The FBI vs. Survey Panelist “John Doe”


A true story about guns, pickles and an arrest one foggy night.

LOS ANGELES, March 2, 2016 — I’ve never shared this tale publicly, but instead of ranting about survey panel quality and the sampling industry in general, I thought it might be time to tell this remarkable story.

Back in 1999, I co-founded goZing, one of the first online panel companies in our industry. By 2005, goZing had merged into Greenfield Online which was later acquired by Toluna. As a pioneer in the online research space, developing an online panel was challenging as we were establishing a new business model and devising revolutionary panel-creation processes.

One of the constant battles we faced early on was fraudulent survey panelist behavior. These were survey panelists that were willing to lie and cheat just to earn a cash reward. Over time, we figured out numerous methods involving technology and human oversight to mitigate this risk. However, it was a constant game of cat and mouse, and to some degree many companies still face this issue today.

Around 2003, one panelist figured out a way to hack into the goZing panelist website and change the user email addresses. By changing these email addresses, the hacker was able to become the recipient of panelists’ cash rewards (which were paid out electronically via PayPal). We started receiving hundreds of complaints from users saying their rewards had never arrived. Luckily for us, our quick tech sleuthing caught this issue early. However, panelist John Doe stole over $5,000 in cash from other panel members.

During this time, the FBI had created a cyber security division defending corporations against online fraud. After we reported the breach to local authorities, they referred us to this new FBI division in Los Angeles. Before you know it, we had FBI agents in our office asking for our webserver IP address logs, database records of panelists that were defrauded and anything else we could produce. After much hunting, it turned out John Doe worked at a pickle factory in Pennsylvania, but we only knew the company’s main IP address for the facility. Who exactly was the person at this pickle company that was doing the hacking?

The FBI asked the pickle company to review their web logs to see which workstation had been accessing our website. It was discovered that the culprit was a guy who worked the nightshift, making brine for the pickles. I guess he had ample time on his hands while the brine fermented the pickles!

Fast forward a few months: late one foggy evening, FBI agents walked into the pickle manufacturing facility and, with guns drawn, arrested John Doe. Well maybe it wasn’t foggy, but it makes the story sound better, right? After that, the FBI wouldn’t tell us much more except that John Doe got to keep his job. Maybe it’s hard to find good brine makers? Unfortunately, we never recovered the lost funds but we did end up paying all the panelists who never received their reward money.

So what’s the moral?

Don’t mess with other peoples’ survey rewards,
or you might find yourself in a pickle.

About Matt Dusig:

Matt Dusig is a serial entrepreneur from Los Angeles and has co-founded three pioneering digital sampling firms since 1999: goZing, uSamp/Instantly and most recently, Innovate. Matt’s technical know-how and business experience help drive his companies. Matt envisions the ideal market research world where every consumer has a positive experience with surveys, thereby expanding the universe of people willing to participate. Connect with Matt on: LinkedIn or Twitter.

About Innovate:
Real People. Quality Data.™ Innovate is a global online sampling firm, generating high-quality data from engaged panelists. Founded by Matt Dusig, Gregg Lavin and George Llorens, Innovate provides 24/7 client service to thousands of market researchers and research departments around the world. Innovate pioneered Human-Powered Sampling™ which promotes responsive communication for client satisfaction and created the First Class Panel™ which is a heavily-screened, profiled and engaged audience of survey respondents. Follow Innovate on LinkedIn, Facebook,Twitter or Google+.