If you’ve seen fraudulent ads online, you’re far from alone: Google alone has blocked at least 3.1 billion of them to date. Facebook, too, has a scam ad problem — and it’s big enough to require 35,000 safety and security experts.
Are these two iconic companies doing enough to fix what’s broken? The jury is still out.
Below, we explain what these ads look like, the steps taken to curtail the problem, and where you can report wrongdoing if you stumble upon it.
Fraudulent ads statistics
A study from the U.K. consumer group Which? found that a substantial number of the fraudulent ads reported to Google (34%) and Facebook (26%) were not removed.
“The combination of inaction from online platforms when scam ads are reported, low reporting levels by scam victims, and the ease with which advertisers can post new fraudulent adverts even after the original ad has been removed suggests that online platforms need to take a far more proactive approach to prevent fraudulent content from reaching potential victims in the first place,” Which? said in the report.
Both Google and Facebook said in response to the report that they have removed many fraudulent pages and advertisements on their platforms, but more recently, they have begun to take additional measures to crack down on scams.
“Our 35,000-strong team of safety and security experts work alongside sophisticated AI to proactively identify and remove this content, and we urge people to report any suspicious activity to us,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
“We take action on potentially bad ads reported to us, and these complaints are always manually reviewed,” a Google spokesperson said.
What does an ad scam look like?
One of the most common forms of fraudulent ads on platforms like Facebook and Google appears to offer merchandise for sale, but customers receive a different, inferior product if they get anything at all.
One Texas resident told TIME Magazine in December that the two ornamental Christmas trees made of sea glass that he ordered ended up being two plain plastic cones. He’d bought them from someone impersonating a legitimate Florida woman who made and sold sea glass figures on Etsy, and it was she who ended up being flooded with complaints from angry victims of the scam.
Another common ad scam masquerades as a promotion for cryptocurrency. Consumer advice expert Martin Lewis sued Facebook in 2018 after seeing fake advertisements that used his name to promote Bitcoin scams. He told The Observer in May that the company is still not doing enough to fight false ads.
“I just don’t get why,” Lewis said. “Why are they not doing it? … It’s been exploding for the past three or four years, and it’s been exacerbated due to the pandemic.”
Facebook filed two lawsuits against abusers
For its part, Facebook is taking fraudsters to civil court and hoping to make them stop by hurting them in the pocketbook.
“As part of our ongoing efforts to keep people safe and combat abuse of our ad platform, we filed two separate legal actions today against the perpetrators of online scams who violated our terms and advertising policies,” Facebook’s Director of Platform Enforcement and Litigation Jessica Romero said in a June press release.
One lawsuit concerns the California marketing company that allegedly ran a bait and switch on the social media platform where customers either didn’t get what they thought they were buying or got something of lesser quality.
The second lawsuit involved people allegedly using a technique known as “session theft” or “cookie theft” to compromise the accounts of employees of advertising and marketing agencies. They misled the victims into installing a mobile app from the Google Play Store deceptively called Ad Manager for Facebook that requested their Facebook login information. The group used this information to run ads for online scams.
Facebook’s new privacy-enhancing technologies
Facebook’s Vice President of Ads and Business Products Dan Levy last week announced that the company is working on new “privacy-enhancing technologies” that will help protect their users’ personal information while still allowing advertisers to efficiently target their promotions. This will involve a collaboration with various industry groups, including the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media, the World Wide Web Consortium, and the World Federation of Advertisers to determine the ideal practices.
“Businesses are confronting a permanent shift in people’s behavior, a migration to eCommerce that might have taken a decade exploded within a year,” Levy said in the announcement. “This, combined with growing technologies to meet people’s privacy expectations, is a generational opportunity for our industry to innovate once again. We must develop new ways for businesses to reach customers and to give people more control over how their personal information is used in advertising.”
Google’s updated cryptocurrency Fraudulent ads policy
Starting in August, Google is updating its policy on advertising for financial products and services, specifically concerning cryptocurrency, to ensure that advertisers are registered with either the federal government’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and at least one state or as a government-chartered bank, ” as well as that they comply with legal requirements and all Google advertising policies.
Google will revoke all prior certifications for cryptocurrency exchanges on Aug. 3, meaning that advertisers will have to request new certification. It will forbid ads for initial coin offerings, decentralized-finance trading protocols, and the purchase, sale, or trade of cryptocurrencies or related products, including cryptocurrency loans and celebrity cryptocurrency endorsements.
In addition, Google will no longer allow “[ad] destinations that aggregate or compare issuers of cryptocurrencies or related products,” such as websites that provide advice on cryptocurrency investments.