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One Weird Trick to Rule Them All

by Mike Rothschild

January 28, 2013

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Donate Hey, you there. Sitting at your computer, clicking away. Times are tough, right? You’re feeling lethargic and a bit overweight, yes? Your skin has gotten blotchy and your teeth aren’t as white as they used to be. You’ve got a bit of fat around your belly you can’t get rid of. You’re having trouble sleeping, I’m guessing. You want to learn a new language, but haven’t the time or energy. And speaking of energy, your power bills have probably been longer than your arm lately, right?

Of course I’m right.

I used to be in the same boat as you. Exhausted, flabby, monolingual, a slave to the local electricity concern. I was in a bad way. A world of hurt. But then I was let in on a secret. And that secret changed everything for me. It’s just one weird, old trick, really. Easy as pie to do. But I’ll bet you’ve never heard of it. I’ll bet you didn’t even know the weird trick existed, let alone what it was or what it could do for you.

But it does exist. And just as a kind stranger let me in on it, I want you to know about it, too. Of course, THEY don’t want you to. The power company fat-cats, the language professors and dermatologists, the purveyors of belly-fattening foods that you must never eat. THEY have been keeping the one weird trick to themselves. Because if it ever got out, they’d be finished. Done. Kaput. That’s why they hate me. And soon, they’ll hate you too.

So are you ready? Are you ready to learn the one weird trick and be free?

Great choice, congratulations. You just took your life back. So just click on the little banner ad over there. All we’ll need to unleash your potential is a little personal information. Nothing THEY don’t already have. And for you to watch this video. Also, a credit card number will help speed things along...hey, don’t close that! Don’t you want to know the old weird trick? Well, do you at least mind if we put some malware on your computer and harvest all your data??


One weird trick” ads have become the new “annoying animated GIF” of the internet, popping up everywhere and selling anything you can think of, as long as it will change your life with virtually no effort on your part. No matter the product, the ads are mostly the same, usually featuring some kind of crudely drawn animated or photographed picture, as if to catch your attention via ugliness. They offer information about achieving some miraculous feat by the use of one simple “weird old tip.” And there’s often a reference to those who “hate” the weird trick, because the only thing better than a secret is a forbidden secret.

And you react by either ignoring the ads, not even seeing them in the first place because you’ve seen so many already, or scoffing at their desperation and silliness. The internet has been around for a long time, and we’re all pretty good at sniffing out scams, right? Who would click on an ugly ad like that? Who would believe such lofty nonsense?

A lot of people. And they do more than believe. They spend.

According to the Washington Post, as of 2011, just the “belly fat” ads alone had raked in a staggering $1 billion from people who’d been duped into buying worthless weight loss products. The power, teeth whitening, language and sleep scams are all fairly new, so there’s no telling how much money they’ve generated, but it’s probably a lot. And like with any scam, there are probably more victims out there who haven’t come forward out of embarrassment. It would seem that as consumers have finally gotten wise to the advance-fee fraud scam (the so called “Nigerian 419”) they’ve fallen in droves for “one weird trick.”

The scam itself is devilishly simple, and not as crude as most of the 419 emails. Clicking on the “one weird trick” ads brings you to a site that looks like a legitimate news report or information aggregating website, full of fake stories, fake testimonials and fake “scientific studies” regarding a miracle superfood like acai berries, African mangoes, raspberry ketones or green coffee beans. If you try to click away from the site, a window pops up asking if you're sure, and if you click yes, you're just taken to another site that has the same "information." Then, once you’ve gotten hooked by the “facts” and “news reports,” you’re directed to yet another site where you can put in your credit card information to get a trial sample of the product. The charges start racking up, the miracle product keeps coming (and doing nothing) and there’s basically no way to stop it other than canceling your credit card.

The “power companies hate this” scam features an eye-catching picture of a futuristic gizmo that leads the clicker, who is presumably dealing with sky-high energy bills, to a video of a free energy device doing something amazing. After you watch the video (which is also probably on YouTube with lots of fawning comments), you can order software or products that will let you turn your house into a lean, mean, free-energy producing machine and stick it to those power companies.

Given that free energy does not exist, this is not a productive endeavor for anyone other than the person stealing your money. And just as the power scam uses the real (and debunked) promise of perpetual motion machines, the “learn a language in ten days” scam plays on the real Pimsleur Method of language learning, and the “sleep better” scam sells sleep aids that come in bottles with labels that look like real medication, but which, unlike real medication, don’t do anything. It’s all so real that it’s completely fake.

So why do people respond to these ads? And why do they make so much money?

As with other scams, many of the victims of “one weird trick” schemes are older, and have less experience sifting through the barrage of noise that greets us on virtually every page. But the money generated by “one weird trick” ads isn’t coming just from elderly internet users, but from a cross-section of the whole world. Why don’t people who should know better...know better?

It doesn’t help that many of the weight loss products sold by these ads are endorsed by high profile people. When I see Dr. Oz shilling for green coffee bean extract or raspberry ketones on his television show, then I click on an ad for the same product, I’ve gotten explicit confirmation from an “expert” who I trust that it works, and therefore, I’m much more likely to buy it. Who cares if “science” says it doesn’t work? THEY don’t want me to use it anyway, because drugs are expensive, and coffee beans are cheap.

The mysterious, evil THEY not wanting you to know is another reason these scams are so lucrative. The lure of “secret knowledge” is tremendous, and the more secret, the more ancient, the more forbidden, the better. Especially when it involves the familiar villains of Big Pharma and Big Oil. Learning “old weird tricks” that have been suppressed is a way of getting one over on them, even if the only people we’re getting one over on is ourselves.

And it’s just human nature to want easy solutions to difficult problems. It’s really hard to lose weight, and if acai berries or super-duper mangoes can help, then isn’t that worth at least trying? Energy costs are ridiculous, and if something I can spend 50 bucks on and build in my garage can save me money, don’t I have to give that a shot? Must I not at least make an effort?

The answer is no, you don’t. These ads are scams, and you don't have to give your hard-earned money to these hucksters, no matter what Dr. Oz or a thousand YouTube commenters say. You can’t make something out of nothing, and anything truly worth doing, be it weight loss or reducing energy bills or whatever, can’t be accomplished simply through one trick, no matter how old or weird or suppressed or inexpensive it is. Your money and your time are infinitely more valuable than any "trick" someone on the internet wants to sell you.

by Mike Rothschild

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