Social media giants urged to crack down on scam adverts
Facebook users report scams being promoted in their feed just weeks before the company is due to give evidence to the parliamentary fake news inquiry.
Facebook has come under fire for taking money from con artists to promote scams in its news feeds just weeks before the social media giant is due to give evidence to the parliamentary fake news inquiry.
Recent adverts promoted in people’s news feeds include fabricated claims that Sir Richard Branson “hacked” cryptocurrency exchanges, as well as links to get-rich-quick schemes renowned as online scams and alleged attempts to steal people’s passwords.
Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, said fake adverts are “detrimental to the consumer and undermine trust in advertising as a whole”.
“Fake adverts displayed on social media platforms are a real problem, and one that the social media companies must tackle,” Mr Collins told the Press Association.
“It is wrong that social media companies, such as Facebook, are profiting from phishing scams and fake adverts that are harmful to their platform’s users,” he added.
Facebook users said they reported the offending adverts but they were only removed after the Press Association contacted the company.
Gavin Sheridan, an entrepreneur and journalist from Dublin, posted a stream of tweets investigating one such fake advert on Twitter on Sunday.
Mr Sheridan identified an advert featuring Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, in which the billionaire entrepreneur is falsely alleged to have “hacked” cryptocurrency exchanges.
The advert links to a website made to look like a CNN story about Sir Richard’s non-existent “hack” which then drives visitors to an online scam claiming to help visitors make Bitcoin.
ALL links go to this scam. FB actively undermines trust. FB facilitates this. Some members of the target audience will say "I read this story on CNN Money about Branson and bitcoin" pic.twitter.com/TneHBmxI0x— Gavin Sheridan (@gavinsblog) January 14, 2018
“If you have two billion users and an ad like this appears, even for a few hours, it could potentially impact thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, depending on how the ad was targeted,” said Mr Sheridan.
Sir Richard is regularly used as a lure in false adverts around the internet, and a Virgin spokesman said legal teams “work hard to take down fake stories or companies misrepresenting us”.
The entrepreneur urged the platforms to take responsibility for fake adverts in a blog post in January 2017.
The Press Association first reported on similar fake and malicious adverts on Facebook last April.
Facebook’s guidelines state that adverts must not be “deceptive, false or misleading” but users have continued to report scams promoted in their news feeds.
One Twitter user, @TheBoyCrypto, reported seeing an advert on Facebook which claimed to be a “step-by-step guide” to earning Bitcoin but which actually encouraged visitors to hand over the password to their cryptocurrency wallets.
@TheBoyCrypto told the Press Association he reported the fake advert. Although the advert itself is not visible, the page which published it, which gives a fake UK address and phone number, remains active.
He said it was “disappointing” to see such fake adverts and that “a ‘scam/phishing’ option” is needed to report such malicious advertising.
Another scam advert which appears to originate from the UK uses a doctored video of an eSports star and claims a “Bitcoin hack will blow your mind” to lure users into clicking a link. The link directs visitors to an online shopping site called Lootopolis, prompting people to buy toys.
Andrew McGrath, from Alberta, Canada, reported the advert, which has received more than 112,000 views, on Twitter and said false adverts like these make Facebook “part of the scam”.
“You’d assume they have a vetting process for ads,” he told the Press Association. “But when you see an ad that is a completely obvious scam it shows that they don’t care what’s up on their website as long as they get paid.”
Facebook users from around the world slammed the Lootopolis Facebook page as a “scam”, “fake” and “clickbait” in the page’s review section, but these reviews did not appear with the advert.
The Lootopolis website is registered at an IP address, a set of numbers which identify the location of an internet connection, in London.
“We urge people to use the reporting tools available on every advert so we can investigate and take swift action where necessary,” they added.
Anyone with a Facebook page and a credit card can pay Facebook to promote a post in people’s news feeds and are given specific criteria for the type of individual they wish to target, based on users’ activity on the platform.
Page owners can hide these adverts from public view, making them visible only to people who have been targeted, or who have a link to the advert already.
Such “dark” advertising has come under increased scrutiny since the Brexit vote, as industry regulators and electoral officials seek to understand their scale and impact.
Facebook relies on users to report posts which may be false, malicious or distasteful but has come under growing pressure, along with Twitter and Google, to review how paid adverts are bought and promoted.
In November, executives from the companies turned over thousands of adverts to Congress which were paid for by Russian operatives in an attempt to influence the 2016 US election.
Days later, Facebook’s vice president for ad products, Rob Goldman, outlined the company’s advertising principles in a blog post.
“We may not always get it right,” he wrote, “but our goal is to prevent and remove content that violates our policies without censoring public discourse.”
British MPs from the DCMS fake news inquiry will visit Washington in February to grill the companies on Russian social media influence before the Brexit vote. Advertising executives are due to give evidence to the inquiry in London on Tuesday morning.
“I think Facebook bears ultimate responsibility for the ads on its service,” said Mr Sheridan.
“Facebook often tries to place the burden on users to report these issues, but the onus is not on users, it’s on Facebook.”
Facebook declined to answer specific questions about the adverts and the money used to pay for them, but a spokesman said: “Fraudulent advertising is strictly prohibited on Facebook.
“We thank Press Association for bringing these adverts to our attention, which have been removed for violating our policies and the associated pages and accounts have been unpublished.
“We urge people to use the reporting tools available on every advert so we can investigate and take swift action where necessary.”