Netflix thought I was four different people. I was being paid through an app to watch its trailers over and over again, racking up digital points I could eventually trade for Amazon gift cards or real cash. But rather than just use my own phone, I bought four Android devices to churn through the trailers simultaneously, bringing in more money.
I made a small "phone farm," able to fabricate engagement with advertisements and programs from companies like Netflix, as well as video game trailers, celebrity gossip shows, and sports too. No one was really watching the trailers, but Netflix didn't need to know that. The goal was to passively run these phones 24/7, with each collecting a fraction of a penny for each ad they "watched."
Hobbyists and those looking to make a bit of money across the U.S. have been doing the same, buying dozens or hundreds of phones to generate revenue so they can afford some extra household goods, cover a bill, buy a case of beer, or earn more income without driving for Uber or delivering for Grubhub. The farms are similar to those found overseas, often in China, where rows and rows of phones click and scroll through social media or other apps to simulate the engagement of a real human. Every few months, a video of these Chinese farms goes viral, but in bedroom cupboards, stacks in corners of living rooms, or custom setups in their garage, American phone farmers are doing a similar thing, albeit on a smaller scale.
Motherboard spoke to eight people who run farms of various sizes, most of whom are located in the U.S.
“Phone farming just sucked me in,” one farmer, who goes by the handle Goat_City and runs about 100 phones in Virginia, told Motherboard in an online chat.
Do you run or work in a phone farm? Or know someone who does? We'd love to hear from you. You can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
Typically you don't get paid for watching or reading an advertisement on the internet. But an ecosystem of websites and apps flip that idea on its head. With a marketing strategy called "incentivized traffic," app developers take advertisements or other content that companies want to get in front of an attentive audience, and pay that audience to watch or interact with them.
This can be perfectly legitimate business: there's nothing wrong with someone deciding to be compensated for their attention by watching an advertisement or movie trailer in an app and getting some pocket change in return. Last year, NBCUniversal launched an app called WatchBack, which gives users a chance to win $100 in exchange for watching TV shows, in hopes of creating new fans for its programming. Other apps like Perk give viewers points for watching trailers and shows which can be exchanged for more valuable goods. Roy Rosenfeld, Head of DoubleVerify's Fraud Lab, a company which focuses on ad fraud, said DoubleVerify estimates in total these incentivized traffic "apps generate 100-300 [million] ad requests a month," with the vast majority working with video.
The phone farmers Motherboard talked to aren't responsible for many of those ad requests, but they still take advantage of this ecosystem. Rather than actually watch ads, these phone farmers use as many as a hundred phones and sometimes automate the process to make it seem like someone is watching the ads in order to generate income.
Joseph D'Alesandro, 20, made nearly $2,000 a month from phone farming back in 2017, he told Motherboard in a phone call. In eighth or ninth grade, D'Alesandro found one of the apps popular with farmers and started running it on his main phone. Slowly over a few years, he built up his farm, expanding to more and more devices. On his YouTube channel TheTechSlugs, D'Alesandro made videos explaining his progress along the way.
"You really can't compare it to a job," D'Alesandro said, because of how little he needed to interact with the phones.
Other phone farmers said they've made hundreds of dollars a month from passively running apps on their phones. Goat_City said they pulled in $700-800 a month recently; another farmer with the username CallMeDonCheadle said their farm made $7 a day, working out to more than $200 a month. Another farmer who asked to be referred to as Cole H said after starting with seven cheap phones and building out their farm from the earnings, his devices have racked in $1,094.63 since August last year. According to photos users posted in a Discord server run by Mr. E Media, another YouTuber who makes videos about phone farms, people have spent their earnings on everything from Nintendo Switches, to hobbyist drones, to pizza. Users also posted photos of Airbnb and Amazon gift cards they have been awarded, and profits the apps transferred to them through PayPal.
Those profits can vary quite wildly: Aaron, another farmer, said he's only making between $50 and $100 a month at the moment with his 20 phones. But even the modest income from a smaller phone farm can help out. One farmer using the handle PhenOm20 said they started farming because they were disabled at the time and living on a fixed income. Another said it helps with buying computer accessories or food, and a third said they remembered someone using farming to help cover the cost of child care, such as buying diapers.
"I [would] much rather be doing this than playing taxi, or delivering food for extra money," one farmer, who went by the name Tommy, wrote in an email. "It's practically a second job, but it's work from home. Usually while hanging with my wife and kids, or watching TV."
A phone farmer may start with their own device, like D'Alesandro did, then purchase used phones from eBay or Amazon. There are startup costs involved, and if not done effectively may not end up in a profitable farm.
For many of the phone farmers Motherboard spoke to, building up their farm is also a hobby, not solely about generating cash. One farmer called ElSucio said they've learned about computer networking through farming.
"Understanding the interworking of the software and exactly how everyone is making money with all the apps intrigues me," Cole H said.
"But of course the money is what brings people in," he added.
HOW TO BECOME A PHONE FARMER
For Motherboard's phone farm, we bought used devices off eBay: four TracFone ZTE Android phones for $24.99 each. The boxes had been opened, but the phones were in working order. It's sometimes possible to get phones cheaper, at around $10 each, and farmers trade tips on what sort of phones will be most cost-effective. 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. Some farmers can use more powerful phones to run two apps simultaneously.
It turns out, phone farming is not as simple as just buying some phones, installing some software, and letting the money trickle in. The apps that are the most profitable are constantly changing, as some developers crack down on people using lots of devices at once, or make tweaks to the app that make it harder for farmers to passively make money by requiring user intervention to keep the app going.
Typically, a phone farmer will download an app and be prompted to make an account with the service. The user interface of each app varies, but usually phone farmers can get straight into watching adverts, sometimes by selecting from a menu of different genres or programs. Phone farmers jump between different apps as some become better for generating money than others, though the apps mostly work more or less the same.
"I am no longer using Supervank since they slashed earnings by 75 percent," one user in Mr. E Media's Discord wrote earlier this year, referring to a specific app.
"Perk was the king of phone farming, but now an application called CashMagnet has been on the rise," CallMeDonCheadle told Motherboard.
Motherboard also ran into several problems while farming. Some of these money-making apps are buggy, crash often, and it appears to be quicker to restart the Android device itself rather than killing the app's process and rebooting it. An emergency push notification for a flash flood warning stopped at least one of the phones from playing clips. Sometimes, the phone would just hang on buffering a video to play but seemingly never finish loading it, even on a stable and fast internet connection. Unless you're really keeping on top of your farm, maintaining the devices and their apps can be quite labor intensive—the opposite of phone farming's promise.
"One of my reasons of [sic] taking a long break was the time needed to manage it didn’t seem worth it," CallMeDonCheadle said. Phone farmers may need to occasionally click a pop-up on their phones' screens to say, yes, they are still watching the adverts, or otherwise monitor them for other issues.
"I [would] much rather be doing this than playing taxi, or delivering food for extra money."
For most of the week-long test period, Motherboard's phones ran the app Perk TV, whose website reads, "The more videos you watch the more Perk Points you earn. Exchange the points you earn for gift cards, prizes, sweepstakes, and more—absolutely free!" For watching videos—in our tests, mostly Netflix trailers—Perk TV rewards points. 1,000 points are worth $1. (Until recently you could exchange those points onto a Perk credit card; Perk discontinued the card last week).
In all, we made 50 cents worth of Perk points.
Some farmers go beyond just running multiple phones at once though, and also use software to simulate clicks and finger movements on their phones. While their app thinks they're paying attention to the adverts, "in reality they are actually off sleeping haha," Goat_City said.
There's a clear divide between those who support automated phone farms and those who don't want to get any more adversarial with the developers of the money-making apps, possibly triggering more turbulence in the industry.
"I always saw it as if we work with the companies and they continue to work with advertisers, everyone benefits long term," ElSucio, one of the farmers, said. "If someone wanted to make a lot of money programming a phone, go get a job instead."
Cole H added, "I'd rather abide by their rules and stay clear from a ban."
Those who do engage in the practice are not always forthcoming about it, either.
"No never! …wink wink…," Tommy, one of the phone farmers, wrote in an email. Tommy said he didn't always automate, "But now it's necessary sometimes," he added.
DoubleVerify, the anti-ad fraud company, works with Facebook and other partners to determine whether traffic from adverts is coming from genuine viewers. Some advertisers find incentivized traffic to be an effective way to increase visibility for their brand, Rosenfeld said. But others probably don't like the idea of their adverts falling onto the screens of a phone farm.
"Clients may want to avoid incentivized traffic apps if […] they believe a higher risk of ad fraud exists due to abuse of incentivized traffic apps," he said.
Netflix, the main subject of our phone farm test, did not respond to requests for comment on its stance around phone farms.
Mr. E Media said in an email that an ad network called AdscendMedia stopped working with him after finding he talked about phone farming on his channel.
AdscendMedia did not respond to a request for comment.
Some of the payment apps themselves try to push out phone farms. TV-TWO is an app that pays users in cryptocurrency in exchange for their attention, and which says it takes several steps to try and ensure that people using its app are actually watching the adverts. A representative from TV-TWO told Motherboard in an email the company allows users to watch their app on one phone and one TV only, and works with another company called AppsFlyer to weed out fraudulent viewers.
"If users are not willing to give their attention in exchange for the [TV-TWO] reward, they should not use TV-TWO," the representative wrote. Other money making apps asked for comment, including Perk, did not respond to a request for comment.
D'Alesandro's $2,000 a month revenue high didn't last. In 2018, there was a "very sharp downfall" he said. Advertisers started to crack down. "I think the people putting money into it weren't exactly sure how it was being used," he added.
In December, D'Alesandro posted his last video to YouTube. In the video description he wrote, "It's been a great ride, but I feel I need to quit now and focus on other things to grow as a person."
Other farmers have felt the dip too. Goat_City, the farmer who had over 100 phones, said they're only making around $10 a day now. CallMeDonCheadle said he took a break after the profits over the past couple of years decreased dramatically.
"It has a lot to do with it being less passive and admittedly I can sympathize now that I have a job," PhenOm20, one of the farmers, said. "Not everyone wants to spend their free time clicking at screens to make fractions of pennies every hour, especially if they have families, friends, and living life in general to attend to."
The industry is far from dead though. Motherboard still managed to generate some, albeit small, income, even as a beginner without properly optimizing the apps or using any automation. Farmers in Mr. E Media's Discord are still constantly sharing ideas, and apps are tweaking or launching all the time.
As one user in the Discord posted recently: "Phone farming ain't dead yet, babey!"
Subscribe to our new cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.