GfK KnowledgePanel is a scam

What is GfK KnowledgePanel?

GfK is a market research company that mails envelopes to the homes of consumers, and the envelopes contain a $2 and a letter telling the ‘chosen’ that your household has been randomly selected to perform short market research surveys, a la the Nielsen ratings. You receive an email when a new survey is available for you, based on your demographic, and usually that comes around every few days. For every survey completed, you generate ‘points’, which you can eventually redeem for either a spin of the prize wheel or other contests (lowest amount), coupons, small gift cards, magazine subscriptions, a check for cash (at a $25 interval), or big items (huge amount of points required). The check gets paid out at 25,000 points, and the prizes generally break down so that 1,000 points = $1. You generate about 1,000 points for most surveys. Each survey, as of now, takes about 20 minutes, which means you earn around $3 per hour.

If you are a KnowledgePanel member who just gets the check, and you’re comfortable making about $3/hr (it takes over 8 hours to earn that $25 check), you can stop reading and enjoy the rest of the Internet. For those who want to know where the scam comes in, read on.

 

Honeymoon period and the first signs of trouble

To start off, I’ll tell the story of how I got started. Like everyone else, we got the letter in the mail, in November 2012, signed up for the site, and took the occasional survey we were sent. The surveys were initially quite short, around 5 minutes or so, and after a few months we accrued enough points for a $25 check. It came, we were happy, and everything was right with the world. Not long after that, however, my wife tells me that she has stopped taking the surveys. “Why?” I ask. She explains that the surveys are taking longer and longer, and it just isn’t worth her time. Thinking about it, I noticed that the surveys were becoming more dense and taking more time – but I was accruing points and about to get a second check, so I wasn’t worried.

Then, this July, a survey asks me to install a mobile Android app, so I can answer questions on the go. Being that I can’t think of much else to do in the bathroom, I looked into it. The app is called SODA Mobile. According to KnowledgePanel, the only security permissions the app requires is Network Access and Sound Control, which seems reasonable for loading surveys or videos. However, when I try to install the app, the following permissions are requested:

This app has access to these permissions:

  • Your location
    • precise location (GPS and network-based)
    • approximate location (network-based)
  • Network communication
    • full network access
    • view network connections
  • Phone calls
    • read phone status and identity
  • Storage
    • modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • System tools
    • mock location sources for testing
    • access extra location provider commands
    • test access to protected storage
  • Bluetooth
    • pair with Bluetooth devices
    • access Bluetooth settings
  • Camera
    • take pictures and videos
  • Microphone
    • record audio
  • Affects Battery
    • control vibration
    • prevent device from sleeping
  • Your application information
  • Run at startup

That is definitely more than than Network Access and Sound Control. Complete location information, records audio and takes pictures, and it starts up with my phone! Not only that, but a Privacy Policy for SODA Mobile could not be found. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with a marketing research firm having completely unrestricted access to everything I do, and everywhere I go, with my phone. I sent an email to GfK support about my concerns, asking if there was a Privacy Policy for SODA Mobile and about the discrepancies between how they describe the app and what permissions it requires on Android. Their response, in layman’s terms: if you don’t like it, don’t use it. So. I didn’t. I skipped that mobile survey and every future one, but this was how my first suspicions about GfK KnowledgePanel began.

 

The Prize Wheel

Spend your points to spin for nothing!

After completing a survey, the participant sometimes gets a free spin of the Prize Wheel. You can also spend your points on getting more spins on the Prize Wheel. Most of the things you can spend your points on, without accruing an obscene amount of points, are either coupons or contests like this one. I was just in it for the cash, but I always spin the Prize Wheel when it’s offered.

I noticed, after spinning the Prize Wheel, that my result was frequently the green tile directly next to the Grand Prize. Having an attention for detail, I kept track of what colors I would frequently land on. Every time, without fail, I would land on either green or pink. At first, I chocked it up to simple probability. However, after a few months, I became suspicious. Unfortunately, you only get 1 free spin on the Prize Wheel. I’m not going to spend my cherished points, I really want that $25 check!

I finally got up the energy to do some snooping. Looking through the source code for the web page, I found the URL for the Prize Wheel. It’s just an SWF, a standalone Flash file! I don’t have Flash Professional, however, so I couldn’t take a look under its hood. I can, however, approach it statistically. Given that there are 16 tiles, there is a 6.25% chance of landing on a tile on any given spin. Given enough spins, we should see some even distribution between the tiles. So, I did it. I performed 1,000 spins of the Prize Wheel, refreshing my browser to reset it each time, and recording the results.

Here are the results:

The Prize Wheel’s very uneven distribution

The results are pretty clear. The Prize Wheel only lands on Green and Pink. For a breakdown of the color distribution:

You can never win if the game is rigged!

This invites a question: If the Prize Wheel is rigged, are their other contests rigged, too? Looking at these results, I have no reason to believe otherwise. So, what’s left for a “volunteer” to do? Well, you can keep letting them pay you $3/hr for fulfilling the occasional survey, getting a check about once every other quarter, or you can slowly save your points to receive an actual reward in a few years. At that pace, though, you could spend that same time scouring parking lots for change and make money a lot faster!

Conclusion: If $3/hr is really worth your time, you can’t think of making money any other way, and giving feedback on ads seems really exciting, KnowledgePanel is for you. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.