Scott Mitchell became convinced YouTube would make him rich.

Mr. Mitchell, 33, got the idea last year from videos that promoted courses on how to build so-called cash cow channels, which are often created through a process called YouTube automation.

So he bought one course, then another and another. He also paid for mentorship services. Mr. Mitchell spent around $15,000 on his YouTube venture, encountering stumbling blocks at every stage — courses that taught him little, freelancers who stole content and audience-growth tactics that got him into trouble with YouTube.

“I’ve tried three courses and one expert on the side, and the only thing I got out of it was an empty wallet,” Mr. Mitchell said.

YouTube automation has led to a cottage industry with online influencers offering tutorials and opportunities for fast money. But, as is often the case with promises of quickly made fortunes in online businesses, the YouTube automation process can

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