Skeptical Shopper: The Risks of Social Networking Games

If you have a Facebook account, you're probably familiar with Zynga games like Farmville, Mafia Wars, and Vampires Live. Your live feed may be clogged with updates from friends participating in these games, or you're trying to make the workday go faster by playing them yourself. They seem harmless enough--but TechCrunch.com has unearthed a video of Zynga CEO Mark Pincus saying the company "did every horrible thing in the book" to make money off of players. What "horrible" things are players susceptible to?

In this video (warning, contains some foul language), Pincus goes on to say that the company offered players extra chips in an online poker game if they installed a toolbar that was impossible to remove. Such revenue-generating tactics are unfortunately not all that uncommon in the social network gaming world, and Zynga certainly isn't the only offender.

Progress within these games depends on how much you have in your virtual bank. You can earn some money based on your activity within the game, but in my brief experience with Farmville, in-game earnings weren't enough to keep things interesting. To accumulate significant amounts of currency, players can either purchase some with their credit card or sign up for an account with a third-party service.

Watch Out for Surveys

You might, for example, earn some quick Farmville cash by answering a brief survey. Sounds a lot better than using your credit card, right? But you're probably safer breaking out your wallet.

TechCruch cites one instance in which players could win currency if they filled out such a survey. At the end of the survey, they would be asked to provide their phone number so that they can receive a PIN via text to get the results. Once they've entered that PIN into the site, they're subscribed to a horoscope service for $9.99 per month--something they won't know unless they diligently read all the fine print. Ouch. The victims could immediately try to cancel the subscription, of course, but they could still end up being charged.

Security--and Social--Risks

Unwanted charges aren't the only thing players are susceptible to: Social networking games make you a target for viruses and hackers as well. Zynga's community forums have a couple of threads in which moderators warn users against accepting any gifts or invitations within a certain game on Facebook. (They didn't specify exactly what would happen if users accepted these buggy gifts or requests.) I also found a few threads where users claimed that that a bug in the game wiped out all of their game progress. That can be pretty devastating for someone who has dedicated lots of time and money to it.

If you absolutely can't break your Farmville habit or can't resist the urge to try out these games, at least stick with earning that virtual money without taking out your credit card or signing up for services.

Many of the users I polled said that their only source of income in these games comes from recruiting friends to play or from posting updates to all of their friends about their progress. You might lose a few real-life friends by spamming them this way, but at least you won't be putting yourself at risk of subscriptions you probably don't want. To keep your friendships intact, I recommend that you create a separate Facebook account strictly for gaming and friending other players.

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