YouTube Lures: Beware of Free Films that Seem Too Good to Be True

Hazardous links promising free movie streaming target fans of blockbusters and indie films alike

All that glitters: YouTube lures are using an official still of The Turtle Terminator to make clandestine links seem less suspicious

All that glitters: YouTube lures are using an official still of The Turtle Terminator to make clandestine links seem less suspicious

If you're actively looking for illegal copies of Hollywood blockbusters, don't bother – they will find you first. Search online for trailers, theatrical showtimes or news about any recent big release, and it won't be long before you bump into links promising the full film. Whether the link actually delivers a film of any watchable quality, or just a series of pop-ups loaded with malware, is of course a different matter. But now even low-budget short films are fair game for the clandestine operations flooding Google and YouTube results with suspicious URLs.

Autonomous bots and other algorithms are clearly being used to take advantage of fans looking for films online. All they need from you is one click. That single click could mean dozens of extra page views for content farms that increase online ad revenue from any kind of traffic, no matter how brief or unintentional; it could also lead to pages that load viruses embedded in their source code, or lead to phishing websites that will prompt you for log in data that they can use for identity fraud, databases to be sold for bulk e-mail spammers and who knows what else. The difference can be hard to tell.

"To think that not just my work but the work of other independent filmmakers is being used to infect the computers potential viewers is sickening," says David McCarrison, director of short film Last Request. Though having no current release aside from a single theatrical screening during this year's Glasgow Short Film Festival, the movie has nevertheless found its way into dubious Google links that make a small, but significant part of of all search results related to the title.

Google results for Last Request: for a film that was never released outside the UK, David McCarrison's short has surely got a surprising number of Russian fans

Google results for Last Request: for a film that was never released outside the UK, David McCarrison's short has surely got a surprising number of Russian fans

It's not difficult for malware peddlers to make these links seem legitimate. As filmmaking becomes an increasingly digital enterprise, from production to consumption, every new title yields copious amounts of metadata that can be harvested and assembled to look like official, or at least licensed, web links. Titles, release dates, lists of cast and crew and other details can be arranged into layout templates that look like film databases or review websites. Want to test it for yourself? Search online for an exact sentence from a film's synopsis, taken from its Facebook page, IMDb listing or official website. A film doesn't need to be more than a few weeks old before bogus links repeating that information will spring up, often in URLs from different countries that have no connection with the movie's filmmakers or distributors.

Worse still, it's on YouTube that malware designers find their best opportunities. YouTube lures are now an unstoppable phenomenon, with new videos multiplying every day. Their format is simple and obvious: a title promising a high-quality free stream of a full film, a still of content from the movie (or its poster) and a description featuring an external link to watch the full film. If you think there's any chance that link will play the film you want, think again.

For example, take one of Glasgow Film Crew's most recent productions, The Turtle Terminator. The team behind it has put great effort in its publicity, resulting in a wealth of online resources about the project. Stills, poster images, synopsis and its trailer are now circulating on IMDb, Facebook, FilmFreeway, Vimeo and film reviews, as well as its official website. It didn't take long for YouTube lures to appear, showing an official film still and a suspicious shortened URL. Once loaded, one of them displays nothing in the video area but a message that says "this video can be played only in YouTube Movie Partner – Get Instant Access Now – Click here".

The Turtle Terminator on YouTube: can you spot the real thing among the fakes?

The Turtle Terminator on YouTube: can you spot the real thing among the fakes? The devil, of course, is in the smallest details. The algorithms that create these pages, links and videos may be very complex coding achievements, but accuracy is not their forte. It may look less suspicious than you'd expect – the video even includes the YouTube logo. The video, however, is almost 90 minutes long. The actual duration of The Turtle Terminator? Two minutes, 52 seconds.

"These hacker types are getting too sophisticated," says C.J. Lazaretti, director of The Turtle Terminator. "It's one thing to promise access to our short film, but to advertise a feature-length cut nearly 30 times the duration of the official release? I can't compete with that."

Some Glasgow Film Crew productions like The Turtle Terminator, are currently under submission to film festivals, therefore not publicly available at the moment. Others, like Bruar and our past entries to the 48 Hour Film Festival, can be watched free of charge on YouTube links that don't send you to external websites – what you see is what you get. No catches, no logins, no bait-and-switch hoops to jump through.

For safe access to full movies, trailers and the latest news about Glasgow Film Crew projects, visit this website or follow us on Facebook.

Find out more about Last Request on its official IMDb listing.

The official website for The Turtle Terminator can be found on theturtleterminator.randomclockfilms.com.

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