Avoiding Affiliate Marketing Scams

I see a lot of newbies to the affiliate arena ask the question of whether or not affiliate marketing (associate marketing, whatever you want to call it) is a scam, especially when they see a two (or more) tiered program (meaning affiliates can earn off the affiliates they bring into the program “under them”) which is often confused with a “pyramid scheme.”

Real affiliate programs don't have “fees”

Affiliate marketing programs cost nothing to join and the only way you ever get paid is if you make a sale.

Even in two tiered programs, the only way you make money off an affiliate underneath you is if they make a sale and earn a commission.

There's no “membership fee” in legitimate affiliate programs. You might come across programs claiming to be affiliate programs that charge a “set up fee” or offer to sell you a “website to market with.” I'd walk the other direction and never look back in either case. Becoming an affiliate is (and should be) free.

Considering becoming an affiliate is free, you'd think it would be almost impossible to be scammed.

Unfortunately, you'd be wrong.

I kind of compare affiliate marketing to weight loss. The actual ability to be successful with either is there, but most of the money made within both industries is made by selling you products touting to help you DO both. Some are legit. But some play on your deepest desires (making money or losing weight) and sell you crap. There's no magic silver bullet in affiliate marketing (or weight loss). Both simply require hard work and a commitment to doing what it takes to achieve the results you're looking for.

Don't get me wrong – there are some good tools, guides and people out there. But in my experience, they're the exception and not the rule.

“Information” products, tools and “systems” promising you big income with little work in no time

The biggest way I see folks with dreams of affiliate marketing get scammed is via purchasing “information products,” tools, “systems” and e-Books that promise to show them how to “make [insert nutty figure here] a day with no work.” Now if I told you that you could lose 100 pounds in 30 days with a new miracle diet – it would likely set off warning bells in your head, but for some reason, telling people they can make thousands in 30 days with zero work seems legitimate to some folks (you *wanting* to believe something can be the most potent sales tool for these bullshit artists than any sales page.)

Then they show you tons of pictures of their “sales commissions” that very well might be photo-shopped or even more typically, be the commissions they make selling people like YOU the picks and shovels you're hoping to use to strike gold – and not actual REAL products or services through traditional affiliate programs. Remember that not everyone feels wrong selling people a dream, even if they know the odds of that dream coming true suck.

Avoiding the hype

The easiest way to avoid falling for these scams is to educate yourself and look for warning signs. Learn the basics of affiliate marketing before you make the decision to get involved with affiliate marketing. Shawn Collins did a video discussing affiliate marketing basics you can check out here:

Then start with FREE reading (and test the theories or methods you read for yourself) from reputable sources that make the bulk of their money selling actual products for merchants and not by selling you dreams of doing it.

A few (in my opinion) legit blogs to get you started (scour the archives in addition to the newest posts):

If you decide that you want to invest in some paid information products or books, you should look for warning signs of someone selling a dream vs. actual information.

Some potential red flags might be:

  • Promises of money without hard work
  • Pictures of lavish cars and other “proof” of an insanely lavish lifestyle
  • Pictures of earnings with no explanation of where those earnings came from aside from “affiliate commissions”
  • Anything touting itself as a “fool proof system”

If you seek out reviews of the e-Books or information products or tools before purchasing them, be sure to look closely at the review. Does it sound like the reviewer read or used the product? Or does it sound like they're using generic statements that sounds more like marketing material simply to get you to BUY the product?

The truth about affiliate income potential

The biggest way to avoid scams is not to let yourself be overexcited by the hype people like to use when describing potential income as an affiliate marketer.


Anyone can make a very successful and lucrative career out of affiliate marketing.


Most people who attempt it will not make a very successful and lucrative career out of affiliate marketing.

That's been the truth from what I've seen in my decade+ of being involved in affiliate marketing. Tons of unlikely people, including myself, have found amazing success with it. But not everyone does. Having *realistic* expectations will help you from allowing yourself to be distracted – and fooled – by the hype.

An honest and realistic guide

I don't claim to have read or have personal experience with even 10% of what is available in the “learn affiliate marketing” product offering realm. But what I can tell you is that I did read and review Traffic and Trust upon request. The book was written by Nick Reese – someone whose affiliate marketing skills (at selling real products and services for quite some time before writing this guide) I can attest to personally.

Far from a get rich quick guide, Traffic and Trust is more like a blueprint for building a successful blog or affiliate site by being willing to put in some honest work. If you're the type to need a guide with everything neatly collected and displayed, this is one I can recommend with good information, realistic expectations and a lack of hype.

That said, I'd still exhaust the *FREE* resources I mentioned above before deciding whether or not affiliate marketing is for you.


Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is a veteran digital marketer and SEO consultant. She is also a serial entrepreneur. You can find out more about her entrepreneurial efforts here. Rae is most active on Twitter.


  1. Mitch Bartlett on April 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

    It’s getting bad. Lately, I get an average of 2 emails a day with these scams. If there’s anybody the FTC should be going after, it’s these guys.

  2. Joe on April 28, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I’m new to the game myself, but the general impression I get is that in the eyes of the general public affiliate marketing automatically equals scam. There’s definitely an image problem here, and all those get rich quick through affiliate-marketing spam sites don’t help.

  3. Shane on April 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Love this article – It’s the kind of raw truth I wish we saw more of online…that said, I do have a question. At the end you mention “Most people who attempt it will not make a very successful and lucrative career out of affiliate marketing.”

    In your mind, is this because they are lazy and give up or because they have heard about the so-called “unlimited” income potential and find out it is a lot of work to get there?

  4. Shane on April 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    I used to have that impression as well but then I started reading more of what Rae was doing and I really did start to see that you could provide value while still doing “marketing” and monetizing. In my mind, it’s how you present your brand and provide value in terms of reviews, articles, information, etc. That said, Google also loves the type of Affiliates who provide value and good, quality content.

    So I don’t look at it any longer as scammy but I look at it as providing as much value as I can through a trusted brand which just happens to also make an income :)

  5. Rae Hoffman-Dolan on April 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Shane – there are definitely some “regular” reasons people fail at affiliate marketing in my eyes. Not the only, but definitely the common.

  6. Paul on April 29, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Nice post.

    I also find that are some dubious products that make you purchaser it before you can become an affiliate. While not as bad a straight up paying to join, as you get something for it, it is still just an underhanded way to sell their product.

    Also these less than legitimate sellers are the one most likely to fiddle with their sales stats IMHO.


  7. Rae Hoffman-Dolan on April 29, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Thanks Paul – The buy before you can affiliate thing is a tough one. I don’t think I should have to buy a t-shirt to be an affiliate for it. But, in the world where the product being marketed is of most interest to the affiliate community, it’s a bit more common. The general theory is that otherwise, every affiliate would just use their own affiliate ID to purchase the product otherwise.

    But the legit times I’ve seen this done, it’s not *advertised* as such. They just don’t mention the affiliate program or have a sign up form for the affiliate program anywhere public – they let you know about it once you buy the product. I don’t see the issue with that as if you didn’t know about the affiliate program, you’d only be buying the product because you actually *wanted* it LOL.

    For me, it would depend on the way I was selling the product regarding if I was willing to be an affiliate for it without having tried it anyway. On Sugarrae, that would never occur… if I haven’t tried it, you won’t see me putting up affiliate links for it. On my more commercial sites, I’m much more likely to sell something – say from Target – I’ve never actually tried myself… but we also aren’t writing “reviews” or recommending the product like I’ve done with stuff by Raven Tools.

    Geez, affiliate can be such a case by case basis sometimes! LOL.

  8. Adam Struve on April 29, 2011 at 7:40 am

    The information products part made me realize just how burned out I am on that stuff. Other ebooks, I unsubscribe to anyone who mails me info products these days. There is a bit of truth in that saying “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.”

  9. Kate Saunders on April 29, 2011 at 8:17 am


    Thanks for this article – I will definitely retweet it and share it on FB. I was one of those people searching, buying, searching, buying – and having only limited success.

    Once I stopped the craziness, stopped the “noise” in my inbox by unsubscribing from a lot of marketers, and only following a few people I know are successful (you, ClickNewz, Peter Spaepen, and Glen Allsop of ViperChill), it started to make a tangible difference.

    Thanks for being a trusted and honest resource.
    You make a difference.


  10. Chance Hoggan on April 29, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Where would you recommended people go to find affiliate products to promote?

  11. Rae Hoffman-Dolan on May 2, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Hey Chance – did a whole post this weekend on how to find affiliate programs as a response to your question – hope it helps!

  12. Chas on July 25, 2011 at 12:10 am

    I wish I had read this a year ago, but, then, you hadn’t written it, yet, and I didn’t even know what ‘affiliate marketing’ was. Kind of wish I had discovered your blog, before now, as well. Maybe NOW is the right time~ I just don’t realize it, yet.

  13. Truth Be Told on January 31, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    It’s all just a scams. People want to avoid good old fashioned hard work.
    The dream of sitting in your underwear sipping a Mocha while watching a football game and your CASH ROLL IN, gets people all the time.

    Just get a real job and don’t get suckered.

    • Scootch on July 10, 2015 at 10:39 am

      LOL, way to be stuck in that employee mindset! Great way to remain poor and middle class for the rest of your life. Maybe you should read T Harv Eker’s book, “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind” some time. You have a complete poor person’s mindset and have been brainwashed to believe you get job (J-O-B = Just Over Broke), work there 40 years and along the way *hopefully* you get a few raises along the way, *hopefully* you can become a manager one day, heck, *hopefully* maybe even a supervisor one day (GASP, WOW!), and *hopefully* your company had a good 401k, and *hopefully* social security isn’t bankrupt by the time you retire… sound about right? As for me, I will take the $85,000 I have ALREADY MADE so far this year… and yes, it is only July, and yes, I have made it at home, on my computer, working a few hours a day as an affiliate marketer, while you remain an employee-for-life. Enjoy! :P

  14. Russ Turner on February 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    A welcome well balanced article telling just how it really is.

    Money can be made but it is hard work and my experience of being slapped hard by Google just when I was beginning to make money is a hard one to swallow.

    But just keep on trucking.

  15. Rachel Keele on April 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Great post! I agree with you that affiliate marketing is a fantastic way to make money online. I also agree that most that attempt it, will have limited success.

    The reason I say this is because I believe the reason so many people fall for the “scams” out there is because they literally think the internet is set up to push a couple of buttons, or simply build a website, and they will be instant millionaires. You know as well as I, that is simply not true. It takes a lot of work to run a successful online business, or any business for that matter.

    Once people figure that out, I think many will still fail because they don’t want to work hard to be successful (they have the employee mentality, and not an entrepreneurial spirit) , or because they have no interest in what they are actually doing. You have to work hard and love what you do in order to be successful, regardless of whether it is an online business, or a brick and mortar one.

    Unfortunately, because so many are looking for the “get rich quick”, they will continue to fall for the scams. Anything that sounds to good to be true, always is.