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Warning about scam ads on Facebook and Google

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Written by: Emma Lunn
06/07/2020
Which? found fraudsters can create scam ads on popular platforms within hours, after carrying out its own tests.

Facebook and Google lack effective controls to stop criminals creating and posting fake adverts and spreading misinformation,  according to Which?

The two platforms accounted for the majority of the UK’s digital advertising market in 2019, earning 80% of the £14bn expenditure in this industry, according to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

While thousands of legitimate businesses use Facebook and Google to advertise their products or services, there has been an increase in fraudsters using fake companies and false information to lure in victims and steal their money.

Fake companies on Google

Which? created two linked fake companies to expose how easy it is for fraudsters to create and promote false adverts. The fake companies were a water brand named Remedii, and an online service offering pseudo health and hydration advice called Natural Hydration.

Google operates a pay-per-click system which allows businesses to compete for a prominent position on online searches. The search engine earned £6bn from UK search advertising in 2019.

Although Google has taken steps to improve ad transparency over the past few years and introduced a verification process for political advertisers in 2018, it has yet to extend this to all advertisers on its platform.

Which? found that Google just required advertisers to have a Gmail account to create adverts and while it did review adverts submitted, it did not verify if the business existed or was legitimate, nor ask for proof of identity.

The adverts Which? created for both fake businesses were approved by Google in less than an hour and garnered nearly 100,000 impressions over the space of a month.

Worryingly, the fake advert for Natural Hydration appeared above the official NHS Scotland pages when users searched for “hydration advice”.

In April, Google announced plans to improve advertising transparency that will require all advertisers to complete an identity verification programme providing proof of identity or business incorporation documents.

However, these rules do not come into force in the UK until early 2021 and Which? believes they do not go far enough.

Fake business pages on Facebook

Facebook earned more than £2bn from UK display advertising in 2019 and while it has restrictions when it comes to adverts that could cause harm, Which? found it was still worryingly easy to create a fake business page.

Using a personal Facebook account, which only requires an email address or mobile number to set up, Which? created a business page for Natural Hydration and produced a range of posts with pseudo health advice to promote it.

Which? paid Facebook to promote this page, which garnered 500 likes in a week.

Facebook introduced an in-app tool for reporting scam ads last year.

Targeted audience

Using targeted advertising on Facebook and Google, Which? was also able to tailor the audience who received the fake ads.

On Facebook, Which? targeted females aged between 18 and 65 with interests in health and wellbeing, water and extreme weight loss. On Google, it was possible to target users who searched for terms such as “eczema treatment”, “high blood pressure” and “suicide”.

While Google allows users to opt-out of personalised adverts, this setting is turned on by default on Facebook. This highlights just how easy it would be for unscrupulous advertisers who abuse the platform to target people with harmful or suspicious adverts.

Reporting scam ads

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) launched a scam ad alert system to flag and remove suspicious and fake adverts last month.

But Which? believes tech companies need to take a more proactive approach to stop fake adverts from appearing on their platforms in the first place.

Harry Rose, Which? magazine editor, says: “Fraudulent activity is rife on social media and search engines and our investigation has exposed that a lack of controls on Facebook and Google has made it worryingly easy for fraudsters to create adverts promoting scams or fake products and services.

“Tech giants earn billions from advertising and should be putting more resources into preventing fraudsters from abusing their platforms, so consumers can trust that the adverts they see are legitimate.

“The government should widen its definition of ‘online harms’ to include fake adverts and content, which would mean future regulation would require more action from tech companies to tackle false advertising.”

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