Tour Halted Immediately After Scandal! Willie will never perform again!
October 17, 2019 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Craig Silverman at Buzzfeed breaks down the anatomy a intricate fake ads on social media scam. He gives some of the highlights in a thread on Twitter.

It answers a lot of the questions I've always had about these obviously fake ads on social media:

How do they make money? Tricking people into signing up for expensive subscriptions that are impossible to cancel (but are genuinely fulfilled!).

How are they not shut down by Facebook? They rent 10's of thousands of accounts from real people and use those to run the ads.

Where do they get those accounts? Via a MLM operation mostly targetting American stay at home mothers.

How do the operate the rented accounts? Via RasberryPi units shipped to the account-holders that are operated by "Virtual Assistants" in the Philippines.
posted by 3j0hn (49 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was great. I always wondered what was behind those stupid ads that were clearly trying to trick me into thinking that Melissa McCarthy was dead or God knows. But I knew nothing could be worth the nonsense resulting from clicking.

I wonder vaguely why more major celebrities don't do something about it the way that Barbara Corcoran or Dr. Oz did, but I suppose it's like legal whack-a-mole, and there's no blood from a stone.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:51 AM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


That same day, as a result of inquiries from BuzzFeed News, Facebook served Ads Inc. with a cease-and-desist notice, instructing the company to end all activity on the platform.
Cool. Cool cool cool. This was a great piece of investigative journalism. So why did BuzzFeed News have to do this work and not Facebook themselves? It's not as if Facebook doesn't have the resources. Oh wait, because it's not as profitable as working to better target ads.
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 10:01 AM on October 17, 2019 [52 favorites]


It's obvious that Facebook had made some attempt to ferret out ad-scammers or they wouldn't have had to go to as much trouble as the did to set up the rental accounts, but yeah -- the people who could most easily have done this investigation are the ones with the access to all the data. But the people with the least incentive to do this investigation are the ones with the access to all the money.

And the article lists stats that suggest they were spending around half of what they were bringing in as revenue on FB ad buys:

The marketer spent $34,765.69 targeting the ad on Facebook and brought in $71,473.50 in revenue, the records show.
Records show that Ads Inc., or a partner that paid to use one of its rented accounts, spent $44,525.68 to run the ad and brought in $79,149.60 of revenue.

posted by jacquilynne at 10:14 AM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


We have no tolerance for bad actors that perpetuate scams and create poor experiences for people on Facebook,” said Rob Leathern, a director of product management for Facebook.

LOL
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:21 AM on October 17, 2019 [26 favorites]


All the technical details of the scam are fascinating, but I think what surprised me the most is that these guys actually parter with fulfilment centers and actually ship the samples and subscriptions of whatever crappy product they were advertising. I guess that's how they avoid Visa chargebacks? Because otherwise, it seems like only a slightly bigger fraud to not ship anything at all.
posted by 3j0hn at 10:41 AM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


Interesting. Sounds like their source saw the writing on the wall and wanted to rip the band-aid off. Getting slack DMs is great access.

The big winner here is Facebook of course - they took in huge revenues from this operation and others like it, and can claim ignorance because the scammers were trying pretty hard to avoid detection. "We can't help it if there are bad actors - it's a big ecosystem. We shut them down when we hear about them." Yeah, and after you have their $50 million.

3j0hn, I imagine shipping the product makes people think less about the whole transaction, thinking they've just made a normal purchase. They won't even think about looking for suspicious charges for a while.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:01 AM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


On the plus side, hopefully these kinds of scams will die off as I understand the younger generations are more internet savvy. On the downside, the kinds of scams that develop to entrap them in the future will probably be horrifying to our current sensibilities.
posted by LegallyBread at 11:11 AM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


as I understand the younger generations are more internet savvy

Have you been on youth oriented social media platforms? Growing to playing Minecraft doesn't tend to lead to being savvy about fraud.
posted by Candleman at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2019 [20 favorites]


How does one get the "opportunity" to rent their FB accounts? I've never been approached or asked. Have any MF folk ever been offered $15/month to rent their accounts? This seems so shady and sketchy on its face that I'd probably laugh if I was offered this.

But a network of stay at home moms? Do they contact people with the $15/month offer randomly? Or just to people they know? How the hell does any of this make sense enough to add up to millions of dollars?

I just don't have the brain to be a social media pirate, I guess.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:24 AM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


How does one get the "opportunity" to rent their FB accounts? I've never been approached or asked. Have any MF folk ever been offered $15/month to rent their accounts? This seems so shady and sketchy on its face that I'd probably laugh if I was offered this.

They don't peg it that way -- they describe it as a way to make a little extra money posting ads on Facebook. "Make $100 a month for a few minutes work!"

And they advertise it using ads on Facebook, of course, but also by asking the current people to refer friends who might also want to make $100 a month for doing nothing -- they don't even have to post the ads themselves, since the overseas workers do that with the RaspberryPIs.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:37 AM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


The tricks used to keep people from cancelling subscriptions/automatic monthly payments are the real core of this sort of scam.
posted by hank at 11:37 AM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


Ads Inc. is a rebel alliance of hustlers and doers on a mission to disrupt the lifestyle industry with our advanced approach to product creation and marketing
The post-parody world is confusing.
posted by eotvos at 11:48 AM on October 17, 2019 [32 favorites]


From the article:
The Ads Inc. employee said its victims often have one thing in common: age.

“There is one demo that this workflow is targeted towards, and that’s baby boomers,” they said. “You run this toward anyone else, and it’s a disaster. But you do this fake news shit with a trial offer scam and you send it to somebody that’s not that savvy [and it works].”
Considering that the oldest baby boomers are now 73, I have to assume that this is not really (or, at least, solely) some kind of cultural-generational thing but simply a function of targeting the oldest available population since they're going to have the highest incidence of aging-related cognitive decline.
posted by mhum at 11:48 AM on October 17, 2019 [9 favorites]


There should be a law that anything you can subscribe to online must have an equally accessible way to unsubscribe online.

I'm looking at you, NYTimes, with your ridiculous "Want to cancel you subscription? Just give us a call!" Fuck off.
posted by dobbs at 11:48 AM on October 17, 2019 [14 favorites]


If a Facebook ad reviewer were to click the link, they would likely be taken to a “safe page,” often a hastily thrown-together food blog. But the average person would be taken to a different page engineered to make them hand over their credit card number.

This and the Raspberry Pi’s are perfect cyberpunk dystopia - it was never actually going to be cool.

Yonks and yonks ago, people talked about credit card companies offering one-use numbers for just this sort of thing - you could buy something with a valid card that wouldn’t be valid for any future purposes. So useful! Is this harder than it seems, or legally weird, or are the credit card companies essentially pro-scam, or what?
posted by clew at 11:53 AM on October 17, 2019 [9 favorites]


I am, however, looking forward to the day when ubiquitous, cheap genetic engineering and or the relaxation of social scorn regarding furry culture makes the “big bad FTC wolf" a real thing. As a rule, I don't talk to cops. But, I'd talk to that cop.
posted by eotvos at 11:57 AM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


I'm impressed by how Republican Burke, the owner of this scam, is. There's just not a single thing about him that doesn't scream "terrible person."
posted by booksarelame at 12:02 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yonks and yonks ago, people talked about credit card companies offering one-use numbers for just this sort of thing - you could buy something with a valid card that wouldn’t be valid for any future purposes. So useful! Is this harder than it seems, or legally weird, or are the credit card companies essentially pro-scam, or what?

A lot of credit card companies provide this feature right now! It's just not advertised much. Find out if your card offers "virtual account numbers."
posted by skymt at 12:11 PM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


It’s easier to name the things in America that AREN’T pyramid schemes
posted by The Whelk at 12:19 PM on October 17, 2019 [17 favorites]


The next iteration of this will probably optimise out the renting-accounts side of it by flooding the market with cheap, attractive-looking electronic devices with tiny Linux computers hidden inside, programmed to break into WiFi networks and then unpatched computers/phones/game consoles, stealing social-media logins from there. (It has been tried before: some years ago in Russia, electric kettles with embedded low-power computers programmed to probe and exploit networks were found.)
posted by acb at 12:28 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


Privacy.com offers a great one time use card with budget limits- it’s free (they make their money by arbitraging the spread between the 3% credit card fees and the flat ach transfer rates). Highly recommended.
posted by jenkinsEar at 12:46 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Subscription trap? Should be familiar to anyone who ever sent a penny to 1400 N. Fruitridge Ave. See also negative option billing.
posted by TedW at 12:54 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


a network of stay at home moms

From the scammer's point of view, if you're looking for a pool of suckers who will actually help organize to find you more suckers, the stay-at-home mom population is it--or, to be more precise, contains it. There's a whole book (a depressing one) to be written about the reasons.

Considering that the oldest baby boomers are now 73, I have to assume that this is not really (or, at least, solely) some kind of cultural-generational thing but simply a function of targeting the oldest available population since they're going to have the highest incidence of aging-related cognitive decline.

Yep, the elderly are Target Pool #2, but usually more lacking in the social connections to spread your scam for you. It has little to do with generational savvy and lots to do with cognitive decline. I contemplate that future with terror on a regular basis.
posted by praemunire at 1:35 PM on October 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


Just last month, "otels.com" pops up over expedia to offer a too good to be true price on a room reservation in the US. Free cancellation for three weeks after the date of booking BUT to cancel you have to call a tel# in Turkey that rings and rings and rings. I was able to stop the charge through my Credit Card issuer.
I'm not sure what Expedia knows about this, but I do know I won't be using Expedia again to book anything.
The ever more commercial internet has been going downhill for years but these days it is like a bad neighborhood, sketchy as a rule.
posted by Fupped Duck at 1:38 PM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


Maybe it should be possible to block automatic payments from one's bank rather than needing to get consent from the merchant you're paying.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 1:38 PM on October 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


From the scammer's point of view, if you're looking for a pool of suckers who will actually help organize to find you more suckers, the stay-at-home mom population is it--or, to be more precise, contains it.

I don't understand this, what makes stay-at-home moms prone to being suckers for this kind of thing?
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:42 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


They're bored and plugged into a network of other bored moms. It's classic MLM strategy. We recently sat through an in-home demonstration for a shitty vacuum because the vacuum company offers discounts if you can convince your friends to let a salesperson come in to their houses.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:47 PM on October 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


how does "bored" equate to "sucker?"

I'll tip my hand here, I think some sexist assumptions are getting dredged up.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:50 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeah you're probably right. There's no doubt that stay-at-home moms are a fertile field for MLM-style schemes, but that's not the same thing as them being "suckers."
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:54 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


One more note: I discovered (no pun intended) that credit cards now have a new and deadly "feature" for when your credit card number changes that updates the new number to all merchants. It can be turned off but default is to update all subscription merchants to the new account number. Thank your banker for that.
posted by Fupped Duck at 2:02 PM on October 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


escape from the potato planet: We have no tolerance for bad actors that perpetuate scams and create poor experiences for people on Facebook,” said Rob Leathern, a director of product management for Facebook.

Unless you're a politician, then we're taking your money, at least for now. Facebook’s decision to allow lies in political ads is coming back to haunt it -- Profiting from misinformation has put the company back on the defensive (Casey Newton for The Verge, Oct 15, 2019)
posted by filthy light thief at 2:16 PM on October 17, 2019


Re MLMs and gender: the trade group for MLM scammers, the "Direct Selling Association," keeps close track of the demographics of MLM victims (or as they would say, "representatives"). According to this infographic (linked from this article by Darlena Cunha), participants are approximately 3/4 women. Anecdotally, many victims are drawn from Mormon and other right-wing Christian groups that pressure women into SAHM-hood (thus greatly limiting their earning opportunities).

Which is to say, I guess, that there's probably more than one layer of misogyny involved in the MLM-SAHM connection.
posted by Not A Thing at 2:19 PM on October 17, 2019 [24 favorites]


how does "bored" equate to "sucker?"

I'll tip my hand here, I think some sexist assumptions are getting dredged up.


A significant part of the population of what you might call longer-term stay-at-home moms are extremely religious and have been brought up and live in an environment that discourages critical thinking and encourages submission to authority. How vulnerable that population is to cons requires little explication in 2019. Furthermore, they obviously tend to be economically extremely dependent on their husbands and are likely to be looking for sources of additional income, or to feel that it is their responsibility to somehow magically "contribute to the household" financially while staying at home, as if they weren't doing so with child-care and housekeeping--but, because they're religious, may feel that traditional employment is not appropriate, or, in certain cases, have deliberately been educated to leave them formally qualified for very little work. They may also be particularly eager to maintain social connections with anybody whose nose they don't have to wipe, so can throw themselves into affinity frauds with particular enthusiasm.

I mean, this is not just me spinning random theories; the vulnerability of stay-at-home moms to MLM schemes is very well-known.

(Nothing quite so enlightened as assuming that a gender-neutral name reflects a male poster, I must say.)
posted by praemunire at 3:00 PM on October 17, 2019 [30 favorites]


I think I am just a year or two away from assuming all sensory input is a scam.
posted by srboisvert at 3:01 PM on October 17, 2019 [23 favorites]


Guitar Tabs

Yes, I’m listening...

Salad Crazy

OK I’m all in
posted by q*ben at 3:39 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


I mean, this is not just me spinning random theories; the vulnerability of stay-at-home moms to MLM schemes is very well-known.

Being vulnerable to predation is not the same thing as being a sucker. "Sucker" is loaded language. When we are talking about people who are being taken advantage of I think it is very important to be careful about how we are characterizing their agency.

(Nothing quite so enlightened as assuming that a gender-neutral name reflects a male poster, I must say.)

I assumed no such thing; I reacted to the text of your comment.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:41 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


“We have no tolerance for [getting caught allowing] bad actors that perpetuate scams and create poor experiences for people on Facebook [if it affects our bottom line],” said Rob Leathern, a director of product management for Facebook.

There, fixed that.
posted by shorstenbach at 3:42 PM on October 17, 2019


Is this harder than it seems, or legally weird, or are the credit card companies essentially pro-scam, or what?

They are. From the article:

Credit card companies also play a key role by largely refusing to grant charge-backs to people who have been roped into a subscription without their knowledge, according to Baker.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:48 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


Chargeback regulations re: negative option billing, trial subscriptions, etc. are a Hella Big Thing in the credit card world these days, and while I am sure the scammers are moving at lightning speed to work around whatever new rules get thrown up, the mandates Visa and Mastercard handed down this year are easy to find online and directly address a lot of this stuff.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:58 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


credit cards now have a new and deadly "feature" for when your credit card number changes that updates the new number to all merchants.

I take it you don't actually like this feature, but I love the sound of that feature. I hope my bank has it or gets it soon. One of the biggest hassle of having my card number changed for some fraud concern is having to go into all of my subscription accounts and update the payment info. Hands down the biggest hassle is waiting for the new card to show up and paying for everything in cash for a few days, but tracking down all of those subscriptions and updating the payment info is right up there.
posted by willnot at 4:18 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


I got an email that Bank Of America's virtual credit card number thing, ShopSafe, is being shut down, so thank you for sharing about Privacy.com.
posted by fragmede at 4:34 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


I mean, this is not just me spinning random theories; the vulnerability of stay-at-home moms to MLM schemes is very well-known.

See here: LuLaRoe, Younique Lashes, Jamberry Nails, Young Living Essential Oils, Pampered Chef... And that's just the modern stuff. Amway, Tupperware, Mary Kay, Avon...

It's horrifying. These outfits prey ESPECIALLY on SAHMs, because SAHMs are shamed for "not living up to their potential" or "leeching off their husbands". They want to reclaim some self-esteem and contribute financially to their households and in the case of the women who succumb to the pitch, have just had enough of being told they are somehow "lesser" for minding the household and rearing the kidlets. Sometimes they succumb because they're desperate because the breadwinner has been laid off or income has otherwise changed for the worse.

Went through it myself during 11 years as a SAHM. Got told I was "wasting" my education, got called lazy, got called a leech. Every MLM scheme out there tried to get me to sign up. Even after I found legit WAHM employment, I was constantly approached.

I promise, people pointing out that SAHMs get dragged into this are not being sexist.
posted by MissySedai at 4:46 PM on October 17, 2019 [34 favorites]


Being vulnerable to predation is not the same thing as being a sucker.

Saying someone is "vulnerable to predation" is a nice way of saying someone is a sucker. Calling someone a sucker is a nasty way of saying that person is vulnerable to predation.

As far as I'm concerned, they're the same thing. MLMs are notorious for suckering people all the time. Sadly it sounds like their marks are disproportionately women. I am curious to know exactly how disproportionate in Ads Inc., and why.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:08 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sadly it sounds like their marks are disproportionately women. I am curious to know exactly how disproportionate in Ads Inc., and why.

As a guess, I would imagine it just has to do with the amount of time older women use Facebook compared to older men and maybe some difference in how they might socialize and take in these kinds of messages. If the ads are showing up on friends feeds that might read as something the friend likes, so they are more likely to click on it in support or for seeming to come from someone they know, where older men seem more prone to getting caught up in "authority" based info like that found in youtube videos and shitty "news" sites.

The sheer volume of people using facebook to "advertise" their endeavors or that of their family and friends is enormous and it seems like Ads Inc rides along with that as part of the hard to differentiate mass of posts asking for money, time, or other actions.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:44 AM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Or, to put it another way, it seems a bit like this scam relies on monetizing the emotional labor dynamic for older generations. Women are expected to spend more effort connecting with family and friends so their Facebook connections get used as marketing device to make money off that effort.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:58 AM on October 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


I was fascinated by the way this home-schooled baby Republican emerged fully formed into the world of business as a grifter. And also fascinated by how he targeted a group for suckers, SAHMs, with whom he was deeply familiar with (as he was home-schooled) and obviously had no respect whatever for.
posted by glasseyes at 4:09 AM on October 18, 2019 [9 favorites]


Good on Buzzfeed for this investigation, but this line? "Facebook does not allow ads that misuse celebrity images to spread false news" uh... didn't you just show that they do? Maybe throw a "purportedly" in there or something.
posted by exogenous at 7:41 AM on October 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


"I'm impressed by how Republican Burke, the owner of this scam, is. There's just not a single thing about him that doesn't scream "terrible person."

is was
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:47 AM on October 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


In watching and listening to a number of documentaries/podcasts about MLMs, I'll say one other thing an aging population and stay-at-home mothers tend to have in common is loneliness. If you're stuck at home without other adults to talk to for a significant portion of your day, every day, being online is as much a way to help sate the need for interaction, and selling things is based on interacting with others. I'd imagine any account rentals that include discussion with someone over chat or on the phone would help to alleviate, at least for a short amount of time, the boredom/loneliness that can come with being at home by yourself, or with kids who aren't of conversational age yet.
posted by xingcat at 8:55 AM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


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