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Check-In Cheating: Shopkick Retail Mobile System Easily Faked

February 24th, 2011

Michael Sajor, the chief technology officer at Ann Taylor who happens to be based in Manhattan, said New York City is a good example where the lack of GPS precision can be a big issue.

“You get to the question of ‘What degree of granularity do you need to enable the application that you’d like to deploy?’ For example, if I walk down the street in New York, and I’m using GPS, the best you’re going to get is maybe 30 meter radius accuracy. Maybe,” Sajor said. “If I’m down to 30 meter accuracy and I’m on 5th Avenue in New York, I’m hitting 35 retailers, maybe 40. So what good is that level of location if I’m a retailer trying to leverage that to say something about where I am so that I can do something with the client?”

Sajor added that those GPS limits “drive me to other technologies that the client may or may not be willing to adopt. Will he or she be willing to adopt Wi-Fi when she walks into the store? Probably not unless you compel them with something interesting.” (Sajor’s comments on mobile strategies were part of a series of StorefrontBacktalk podcasts. These GPS comments were part of a larger discussion of the challenges of in-store mobile that included senior IT execs from Home Depot, Pizza Hut and HSN.)

Shopkick tried to counter those GPS shortcomings by deploying a system that uses a small speaker at the entrance of each store. Those speakers transmit audio blasts that are at too high a frequency to be heard by humans, but can be detected by iPhones and Android mobile units that have the Shopkick app loaded. Each store (not just the chain as a whole, but the individual stores where the devices are housed) is given its own special sound. That way, when the application “hears” that sound, it knows exactly where that consumer is at that moment. At least that was how it was supposed to work.

Editor’s Note:

  • Page 1 of this Special Report covers The Fake And How It Works.
  • Page 2 covers GPS Problems
  • Page 3 covers Putting It Into Fraud Context
  • Page 4 covers Shopkick Defenses

    The problem is that the audio can be easily recorded (if the iPhone can hear it, the iPhone can obviously record it). When StorefrontBacktalk was trying to determine if this fraud would actually work, our concern was that many speakers wouldn’t have the frequency range to reproduce the sound sufficiently for the application to recognize it. After all, why make a consumer speaker that can reproduce sounds that no consumer can hear?

    But those fears were unwarranted. The first speaker we tested was the cheapest one we could find, namely the built-in speaker on a Dell laptop. And, sure enough, the Shopkick app immediately detected the sound and awarded us the points for visiting a store we had never visited.

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