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If you earn a living – or even just spending money – selling stuff online as an affiliate, you should be concerned about cookies.

Digital cookies are the behind-the-scenes gizmo that credits you with a sale generated by a web page visitor. What you may not realize is that it is entirely possible for a clever hacker to hijack those cookies and end up with a sale that should have been credited to your account.

We’re talking big money. Shawn Hogan drew the attention of the FBI when he redirected around $28 million from rightful affiliates to his own account over the course of a few years.

The process in question is known as cookie hijacking or session hijacking.

To protect your cookies, it’s time to get serious about cybersecurity. It’s time to learn what cookies are, how they get hijacked, and what you can do minimize the risk.

Understanding Cookies

A cookie is a small packet of data that a web server transfers to a browser when someone visits a web page. Think of it as a message that originates with the server and is received by the visitor. Unless the visitor has blocked cookies, that data downloads onto the system and makes it easier for the page to load the next time the visitor returns.

That’s the main purpose of cookies: to make visiting a page simpler by ensuring it loads a little faster. It also helps the owner of the page have a better idea of how many visitors the page generates, if there are return visitors, and in general keep up with traffic patterns.

As it relates to affiliates, those cookies also make it easier for you to get credit when a consumer purchases something via your page.

How Can They Be Hijacked?

Cookies are dead simple, which may be why they are often overlooked as a means of committing a crime. All it really takes is for a hacker to seize the cookie and make a minor alteration.

http cookie hijacking flow diagram between hacker and computer

The next time a visitor lands on your page the cookie ensures that the hacker’s content loads. In most cases, it will be an almost perfect mirror of the original page. What’s different is the packet of information downloaded for the session is not original. It’s been altered. That sets the stage for the hacker to control what happens next.

What Does this Mean For Affiliates?

Why would cookie hijacking matter to an affiliate? After all, doesn’t the visitor use the URL to get to the right place and make a sale? What does the cookie have to do with it anyway?

The thing to remember is that the cookies make loading the order page easier. If you alter the data in the cookie so that the affiliate ID is no longer the same, the credit for that order is redirected to another source. That’s because the cookie is often stored in the raw URL for the session. Alter the cookie by changing the affiliate ID and the end user doesn’t really notice anything.

In other words, it appears that the consumer is placing the order with you, but it’s actually being placed with someone different. You never get credit for the sale and certainly don’t receive a commission. That makes this little malfeasance a form of affiliate fraud.

How Do You Know If Your Affiliate Cookies are Hijacked?

Cookie hijacking is difficult to spot. In fact, it would be almost impossible to detect when it happens during a live session. Whether the session hijacking is active or passive, you only have a chance of identifying the damage once it’s done.

One sign that something is not right has to do with the performance of the web page. If it begins to function erratically for no apparent reason, that could mean something has been altered. Alternatively, the page shutting down can be an indication something has been changed. At this juncture, you may want to check the cookies related to the page closely and see if the affiliate ID or even some other aspect of the cookie code is not as it should be.

If your affiliate partner emails or texts you when individual sales occur, compare that information to the commission report. If they don’t match, and there’s no evidence of returns or canceled orders, someone else is ending up with your commissions.

Are There Ways to Prevent Hijacks?

Preventing a hijack is actually simpler on the visitor side. If the page visitor has up to date malware and antivirus software, the protections in those programs will likely spot that something was changed during a session. This gives the individual the opportunity to end the session before completing a transaction. The problem is the high rate of old malware and antivirus software in use.

Your affiliate can provide some support in terms of preventing cookie-jacking. Depending on how the servers download cookies and what sort of security is used for your customized affiliate page, it may be possible to prevent hacking software from modifying the cookies and the session ID that’s generated.

Create Your Own Encrypted Internet Connection

It’s not as complicated as it sounds. The concept of a virtual private network or VPN is coming into its own and likely will become an indispensable component of internet connections before too much more time has passed.

A VPN works in conjunction with your ISP. It is a separate service that encrypts the data that flows between your device and the internet. You don’t have to be a cryptographer to realize that encryption makes it harder for a hacker to complete his task. The extra ten or so bucks a month is money well-spent.

how does https work and differ from http - simple diagram

Make sure your affiliate pages use HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) rather than HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Doing so adds another layer of protection by scrambling the code that’s shared between the originating server and the recipient

The Bottom Line

You don’t devote time and energy to building a business only to have someone else steal sales as certainly as if they reached over and grabbed twenty bucks from your wallet. Make it a point to educate yourself about online security. Subscribe to a blog or two. You don’t have to be a techie to stay updated on the latest threats and keep solid malware protection in place.