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America’s DIY Phone Farmers (vice.com)
89 points by vit05 73 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

I used to do this awhile back and yes it is true. You could make around $1,000-$2,000 per month in gift cards doing it with maybe 50-70 phones. Most apps being used were 100% passive. The only thing you needed to do was restart the phone every 24 hours. The apps would run and show ads to you and just loop over and over. So what about electricity costs? for running 70 phones 24/7 in a month, that was about $10 more in power. Each phone cost around $20 which I bought off ebay. These were phones where the screen was cracked, the IMEID was blacklisted and some I think were reported stolen as well. This was maybe 3-4 years back though. Over the years, the whole thing has come tumbling down. Now you'll make maybe $100/month and it isn't passive anymore, so not worth doing it but back in the day....we were banking it no doubt about it. Also, yes I would pay tax on all of it. The companies would send a 1099.

This was the guy who showed me how to do it. I just basically copied his routine exactly:


You have my support for bleeding advertisers (and paying taxes ;) ) but I do want to point out one thing which is sometimes overlooked:

> some I think were reported stolen as well

If true, that incentivises phone theft. The only reason people steal phones is because there's a market. Every purchase of a stolen good directly incentivises that thief to steal once more. It's a very direct link. If you've ever had anything stolen, please break the chain and consider verifying somehow, some way, that your next purchase wasn't originally lifted off someone else. It can suck, especially if you've been a victim yourself and it's just unfair.

Other than that thanks for doing your part in poisoning the advertising well :)

> The only reason people steal phones is because there's a market.

From what I can tell, the protections put on newer phones by the vendors has massively crushed the stolen phone market. Modern phones are locked to a google or apple account and basically only usable as a) parts for repair or b) if you can phish the password from the original owner, you can unlock them.

Basically, discouraging people from buying used phones, lest they be stolen, is a way less effective mechanism for reducing theft than this kind of structural change.

The person you are replying to wasn't discouraging people from buying used phones generally, just ones that you have reason to believe are stolen.

There are often howto's on the net how to bypass the protections even of the latest phones. Last one I saw was over the settings for disabilities on the lockscreen.

I bet many wished they had done this, thing is when you see stuff like this, you kinda default to Akbar mode - it's a trap, due to the amount of spam and scams we get exposed to. Which in this case - reminds me of this fantastic comedy clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsYoeoEE3ww .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzrDT50_IK8 Sums up the end of that era, same chap.

We’re you able to re-sell the phones later on? At a loss, break even or even a profit?

Or was the ultra-low-end phone market only existent because of buyers for this market?

No. Most of the phones were completely destroyed. The problem is that lithium ion batteries will bloat up after a while. Keep in mind, these phones were pulled in 24/7/365 basically which destroys the battery over time. To me, it was a cost of doing business so to speak. Toss 'em and swap 'em is the saying.

This is straight out of 'Armageddon: The Musical' by Robert Rankin.

"On this particular morning, Rex sat in his homemade armchair, facing the flickering TV screen. His was the classic seated posture of the Active Viewer. Relaxed yet attentive, right thumb and forefinger about the remote controller, expression alert, eyes wide. But here all similarities ended. Rex Mundi was fast asleep.

His old Uncle Tony had taught him the technique when he was but a leprous lad, and there was no doubt that it did pay big dividends. It had already earned Rex sufficient rehousing credits to get him overground and he actually possessed a surplus of food and medico rations. His generosity with these made him quite popular and respected locally. But the greatest benefit to Rex was that it left him plenty of time to indulge in his own personal studies. These centred upon a book his Uncle Tony had bequeathed to him, a curious volume entitled The Suburban Book of the Dead. Uncle Tony had pressed-the crumbling tome upon Rex with the simple statement, 'Knowledge is power'.

Shortly after this, he had spontaneously combusted while watching his favourite game show. The way he would have wanted to go,’ Aunty Norma put it."

Man I love Robert Rankin. I read the Brentford Triangle "trilogy" when I was in college in the 80's. I used to laugh almost uncontrollably on the bus when reading his books which prompted some funny looks from other passengers.

I think my favourite is still 'The Book Of Ultimate Truths'.

Cheers for the recommendation. Your previous comment has piqued my interest in Rankin again so I think I'll backfill the ones I'm missing.

I feel like the best strategy to combat this would be to create lightweight virtualization and automation tools that could be easily deployed by anyone, thereby destroying any company that comes up with these stupid strategies. Just burn the whole system down to the ground, salt the earth, and leave it to be a weird blip in internet history.

EDIT: I'm a guy who builds thing and occasionally takes a chance at trying to promote those things. I've been on the receiving end of a fair amount of ad-fraud. The tech press is full of stories of people who say they just "put a few ads out" and then took off with their products. It's almost a meme. But it's a filthy lie. It's a lie that you can navigate the ad-tech industry without making it your full-time job. It's a lie that the ad-tech industry is a good way to get attention for your projects. It's a lie that the ad-tech industry is interested in doing anything about fraud. I've dealt with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon, and in each case at least half of the money I've spent has evaporated away to ad fraud. And then, when you bring it up on HN, you get the replies, "lol, that's just the cost of doing business." No. No no no no no.

The Amazon one was particularly bad, because it lead to me getting a ton of fake followers on Twitter, killing my ranking in their timeline view, requiring me to spend about as much as a total working week on block/unblocking people to kick them out of my followers list, just to get back to a good state. For $50 of advertising, I had to spend around $2000 of my time to fix the issue and got nothing real out of it.

Someone would have to pay a kernel developer to modify LineageOS (or a similar project) to be oriented towards multiple concurrent instances of the same app, spoofing device IDs, identifying when an app needs attention, etc.

But people tend towards short sightedness and selfishness, so no one is going to spend a few thousand dollars for a product that would take months to produce.

> multiple concurrent instances of the same app, spoofing device IDs, identifying when an app needs attention, etc.

The first 2 are legitimately useful features in general, and for that matter I believe spoofing the device ID was already possible via xprivacy. But consider: Being able to have multiple instances of the same exact app, with different data storage, and in an ideal world the ability to run multiple of them at the same time, would be cool ... but also useful. As an obvious example, consider that mobile browsers don't support multiple profiles like desktop browsers do; this would make that work.

Trust me, people have been trying to cheat the system with stuff like what you are saying. The advertising companies know how to detect that stuff quickly and ban the abusers.

That's what I'm saying, the ad exchanges say they know how to detect the cheats, but they don't actually do a good job of it. And it's not really in their interest to do so. They get paid equally for ad-fraud as they do for legitimate impressions. The person actually advertise the product or service gets shafted. But as long as there is a long tail of people like me when I first got started who don't understand the issue of ad fraud (and the complicit people who sing the praises of advertising to boost the idea that it's a good path), the ad exchange will keep raking in money, just like the people committing the fraud.

It's easy to look at this as "Farmers vs. Google AdWords" or whatever other ad exchange we might consider. But Google is just a middle-man. And as long as the system works for some definition of "works", they can capitalize on asymmetric information about the ad industry to bleed money out of small actors.

With online advertising, it's exceptionally easy to end up in a situation where everyone gets paid except you.

Oh yeah, I get you. Yeah, that is something the ad network has to deal with. Really crazy to think how much online ad dollars are spent as well. I think most of google's revenue is directly from advertising.

> The advertising companies know how to detect that stuff quickly and ban the abusers.

this assumes it is in their best interest to do so..

An 'acceptable level' of ad fraud could conceivably require a bigger spend on the part of the customer to reach the same audience, and therefore bigger revenues/profits to the ad network

Anyone who helps to wreck the advertising economy is doing a valuable public service.

wreck? Such scams is effectively similar to shoplifting, CC fraud or just an additional tax/tariff - i.e. it increases the friction and expenses in the system and the most of the burden to cover it ultimately falls upon the weakest participant in the system - usually the consumer.

The system is shitting into our well, and you're complaining about someone stealing their toilet paper.

The difference is that these apps were offered as stuff like "play games, earn rewards." "watch videos, earn rewards" etc. so I don't know how it could even be remotely related to shoplifting or cc fraud...where those are so obvious.

>"play games, earn rewards." "watch videos, earn rewards"

"pay money, take the bagel". Violating such a contract by intentionally and knowingly skipping or falsifying the delivery of your part of the exchange looks to me like a fraud [IANAL].

The games had "auto advance" modes built directly in to them.

Is there a way to do this without buying actual phones? If you could fool the app into believing an Android VM is a phone you could really scale it up.

No. The reason is because it is easy for the app developers to detect when you are using a VM. The ad networks also have a bunch of detection software running to find it as well. Same goes for using proxy/vpn. You will be banned very quickly for doing it. Do not even attempt it.

From the article: > One farmer said they do sometimes virtualize phones on their PC, but due to how resource intensive that can be on the computer, it works out as more cost effective to have a selection of cheap phones instead.

So I guess the answer would be yes, but it doesn't make a lot of sense/cents

I guess It's only a matter of time and resources to develop new code that would pass the VM detection, perhaps not for the majority of phone farmers but should not be a problem for those readers who has a relevant background on HN.

1. Patch VM.

2. Launch 1,000 instances.

3. ???

4. Profit?

Given they had 350,000 SIM cards, it seems like you at least need a real cellular modem. It's probably cheaper and easier to just buy cheap Android phones.

You don't need SIM cards to do this.

I used to be a phone farmer back when I was school a few years ago (didn't know it was called that or that there was even a community around it). Any device with a WiFi connection worked at that point. Not sure if that's changed but I doubt it.

Also in the article they mentioned people virtualizing the process. It apparently is possible, but the farmers don't think it's worth it.

Probably also less technically challenging / frustrating to set up in the first place, if they're getting used prepaid phones at $10 a piece.

If someone's life is so desperate that doing this is worth the time investment, I can't begrudge them it. Likewise with those poor souls who survive and are thankful to eat rotting refuse from dumpsters. Perhaps the income will help them lift themselves up to the point they can pursue a more satisfying life.

I used to do phone farming. You don't understand how it works. After you setup your farming rig, all you had to do was put about 1 hour per day of maintenance into it, often times even less than that...and you would earn $1,000-$2,000 per month from it in gift cards.

All of the apps were passive, it just would loop over and over playing ads.

Curious about what maintenance was required: looking for new programs? Installing new programs? Actual interaction with phones? Culling broken devices?

Restarting crashed apps (ads can load their own awful code), tapping periodic "are you still watching", swapping between apps during certain hours for more revenue

Basically, every day you reset any phones that were frozen. That would take 15 mins or so. Every now and then you would have to swap out a phone that was boot looping. Every now and then update the app. I would say 20-30 hours per month maybe?

I'm sure some of them do it for the sake of curiosity and of working the system in interesting ways. It's much like the folks doing minor phone phreaking back in the day just to see it work for themselves.

You do realize this site is called HackerNews, right?

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