Avoiding Fraud: Ensuring Incentive Integrity header

Avoiding Fraud: Ensuring Incentive Integrity

Avoiding fraud in research is essential for maintaining the credibility and reliability of study outcomes. Offering incentives to research participants is standard practice across various fields to encourage study recruitment and compensate people for their time. However, researchers have an ethical responsibility to implement incentives carefully to avoid unduly influencing results or introducing avenues for misconduct.  For example, incentives that are too low might preclude an important customer group from participating in the research.

In this article, we’ll explore the following:

In this article, we share the pivotal role research incentives play in avoiding fraud, prioritizing the participant experience, and upholding research integrity.

Understanding the Role of Research Incentives

Incentives serve the crucial purpose of motivating participant recruitment and retention for studies that lead to impactful discoveries across disciplines. Frank Kelly, Market Research Practice Lead at Virtual Incentives explains, “The best way to avoid fraud is to attract people that like to answer surveys as a hobby. If you can gain their trust, you can ask for the necessary proof that they are real people.” By engaging participants who are already motivated, you reduce the potential for falsification in research. 

Here are ways to determine the types of incentives you can offer for your survey.

Optimally designed incentive structures and amounts demonstrate respect for participants’ time. Additionally, they encourage authentic engagement from intrinsically motivated candidates and avoid potential incentive fraud. Implementing incentive platforms emphasizing transparency and ease of use for researchers and participants is critical to fostering trust, streamlining processes, and ensuring ethical research practices.

Determining Appropriate Compensation

When evaluating appropriate incentive levels, consider study length and complexity, incorporating any risk or discomfort to participants, target population factors, and overall project budget constraints. At the recruitment stage, Frank advises including “a join incentive to compensate for the Two Factor Authentication process and modest incentives for profile data.”

In specialized cases seeking niche audiences, providing clear screening criteria upfront rather than asking leading qualification questions about desirable attributes helps attract truthfully qualified candidates rather than those simply seeking incentives. In addition, testing different incentive amounts can also help optimize recruitment and completion rates.

More on determining appropriate compensation.

Maintaining Data Integrity

Well-designed studies rely on established best practices around neutral survey language, randomized conditions, and representative sampling to limit bias and ensure high-quality results. Frank notes, “Good research design should prevent any bad research practices for the most part. The worst one is leading the respondent.”

While most incentive providers handle program logistics, researchers are responsible for sound methodology. Furthermore, with the proliferation of do-it-yourself research platforms, there is a need for education on research best practices to uphold integrity as non-researchers tackle data collection.

Avoiding Fraud and Misconduct

Incentivizing participants intrinsically exposes research to risks of gaming, automation exploits, or outright deception for profit. Frank has witnessed creative fraud attempts over his extensive 20-year career, including:

  • Link Manipulation: This is where individuals figure out what the various numbers on the link mean and change them.  For example, a person may change a screen out code to a survey complete code for a higher incentive. Link encryption and related techniques primarily solves this problem, thankfully.
  • Multi-Screening: One person is doing five surveys simultaneously to avoid speeding traps, and it typically involves multiple accounts, often within the same panel. Software tools can catch this activity when performed on the same computer.
  • Ghost Completes: Another form of link manipulation where respondents bypass the survey but trick the panel management system into believing they completed the survey.
  • Brute Force Attacks: Many people are on multiple survey panels. If they use the sample username and password on a survey panel and one of the panel systems gets hacked, the hacked credentials will be leveraged against several panels.
  • Pay to Join Scams: Have you ever seen advertisements that were too good to be true? Like the work from home and make $1,000 a week? Or learn a highly valuable skill for only $99? These types of scams have been around for many years. Once an individual joins, they are prompted to join a dozen or more panels and, unfortunately, find out that it is impossible to make even $100 a week doing surveys.
  • Bots: This method requires multiple accounts within a panel.  A person takes a survey and records the answers. Then, they teach the system to complete the same survey with random answers using different accounts.
  • Click Farms: These are organized fraud companies typically located in low wage markets that hire and equip a team to systematically answer surveys.  These companies have ways to spoof their location and avoid de-duplication techniques. 

Steps Towards Fraud Prevention

It’s imperative to incorporate ongoing system safeguards to flag suspicious activity and coordinate efforts to identify duplicate accounts to avoid fraud and counter relentlessly evolving tactics.

Frank emphasizes that “Fraud is like a war of attrition; it never stops and constantly evolves its tactics. The perpetrators of survey fraud tend to have high technical competence.”  

All fraud in research is tied one way or another to incentives. Moreover, organizations should invest substantially in analytics, monitoring, encrypted connections, and authentication to balance fraud prevention with seamless reward fulfillment.

Five ways to reduce fraud in your market research.

Improving Incentive Standards

With research tools and platforms increasingly accessible to non-experts, Frank spotlighted a need for better guardrails. “There should be some vetting of approaches and techniques used to make sure people know how to use platforms reasonably well.”

Well-intentioned marketing teams or product developers leveraging “do-it-yourself” (DIY) research avenues may overlook methodology subtleties that introduce bias or ethical issues. To avoid this, invest in thorough training. Alternatively, consult research design specialists instead of taking on data collection alone. In the spirit of avoiding fraud, industry associations are also expanding guidance around participant incentives to uphold standards.

The Participant Experience

Beyond those seeking to game the system, it’s essential to recognize the participant perspective in our ongoing pursuit of research incentive best practices. Frank notes:

“A small percent of surveys encounter technical issues. When these occur, and a person gets stuck after five or ten minutes of work on a survey, panel companies should recognize the effort by sending a communication apologizing for the problem and providing compensation accordingly.”

Respecting participants’ time and effort builds goodwill and retention even when hiccups happen. Furthermore, optimizing the incentive experience facilitates authentic engagement that powers research insights.


Research itself must uphold rigor in methodology, design, analysis, and reporting – technology alone cannot enforce integrity. Applying fraud detection tools judiciously can build trust and transparency. Meanwhile, improving safeguards and standards around emerging research avenues will further strengthen this trust among participants, researchers, and innovators.

As reliance on incentives persists to enable robust participation, vigilance around potential misconduct must remain front of mind. Fostering cultures focused on ethics and learning will best position teams to identify and respond to novel challenges that arise. Additionally, collaborative efforts across stakeholders addressing incentives and emphasizing transparency can help continuously improve research practices while maintaining public trust. Moreover, with ethical imperatives guiding technology innovation and adoption, the research ecosystem can inspire wider confidence while driving understanding.

At Virtual Incentives, we provide flexible rewards platforms tailored to research purposes that promote meaningful engagement without compromising data quality. To avoid fraud and properly incentivize your research participants, we advocate for customizable incentive structures. This will ensure you meet study recruitment needs and participant preferences.