Advait Author of Everyday Cybersecurity, a blog aimed at creating awareness about Security and Privacy.

Advertisement Fraud on Social Media

Advertisements, they have been around for a long time, possibly originating during the ancient civilizations. Through the last century, Advertisements or Ads as we know it, have been around mostly in the form of print media, radio and banner Ads. With the rising popularity of digital media in the past couple of decades, Ads have made their way to Social/digital Media channels most notably to Facebook, Instagram and Google. If you are like me, chances are that you dislike the ads and find some of them downright annoying and obnoxious! I usually end up scrolling past them refusing to acknowledge their existence

As Ads have become ubiquitous on these platforms, so has the fraud and scam associated with them. Not to say there wasn’t any scam when ads were limited to print media but it is safe to assume that scammers found it difficult to exploit people due to the nature of the Ads. With the Ads being just a click of a button away, the barrier for entry for scammers is quite low and the damage done by them is far greater.

Many of you may be aware that companies like Google or Facebook make most of their money through Ads they show on their platform. Knowing what we know about these companies and their reputation, you would expect these companies to be doing a really good job at fighting scam and fraud on their platform. My experience in the recent past says otherwise, especially when it comes to Facebook’s platform. Since the organization is doing a terrible job at keeping scammers away from their platform the responsibility is now on us to identify such Ads and protect ourselves. How do we do that though? Let’s find out

Here’s an Ad I saw last month on Instagram (i.e. on Facebook’s platform)

Scam Ad on instagram claiming Trek bike was on sale for $99

At a glance I would have thought that it’s just another Ad selling something and ignored it but a something caught my eye. First, if you know anything about bikes, you would know that Trek bikes typically cost anywhere between $170 (kids’ bike) to $13,000 (professional bikes). And secondly, the Ad claimed that there was an ongoing flash sale (only for a very limited time of course!) which made these Trek bikes available for just $99!!! Amazing deal, right? That’s exactly what I thought. I clicked on the Ad (mistake #1!) it took me to a website which had all the bikes listed for $99 and it also had a link to sign in to your account.

I was almost ready to get my credit card out and order one before the flash sale ended!! (mistake #2). But somehow decided to take another look before I place the order (always a good idea!) and figured out that something was off about the whole thing. How did I figure that out?

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is!

In the meantime, I had shared the site with a friend who is a bike enthusiast and his first reaction was “are you sure this is legit?”. He was absolutely right, it looked too good to be true, a bike that normally sells for a few thousand dollars was selling for $99. While shopping through Ads like these, always be on a lookout for steep price differences or big discounts. They can be a good indicator that something isn’t right

Check the product website to verify the claim

Another point that helped me identify this Ad listing as fraudulent was checking the original product website. After I saw the flash sale, I searched for Trek bikes website and found no such sale listed on the official website. It made me suspicious and look at this seller’s website more carefully. This may not be possible if you want to buy from a smaller seller, but if a fraudster is impersonating a bigger company, this simple step can save you from great hassle in the future

Check the seller’s website carefully for obvious errors

In this case the website name was something like “bicyce[.]shop” which did not have anything to do with Trek bikes whose official website is trekbikes[.]com This was an obvious mistake and made it easier to spot the fake website. Always look very carefully at the seller’s website for obvious spelling or grammatical errors. Those are typically great indicators of a fraudulent website

Be extra careful while submitting login or credit card information

As part of looking at the website address, be extra careful before entering your login details or credit card information on a website while shopping through an Ad. If the site is not legitimate, you will end up submitting that information to scammers which they can further exploit without your knowledge. It is very common for small sellers to use third party payment services and if a seller is using third party payment service, make sure the website information of that third party is correct. Otherwise you are at the risk of being redirected to some fraudulent website

Do not trust Ads or sellers because they are on a platform you trust

I acted under the assumption that Facebook would have vetted Ad publishers before they even make it to their platform. My assumption was clearly wrong! While looking into this issue, I discovered that there are hundreds of questions submitted by innocent Facebook users asking why Facebook is doing such a terrible job of keeping scam Ads off their platform. Because they are so terrible at stopping the scammers before they get on the platform, it is best to do your due diligence before buying anything from sellers on Social Media sites

In an ideal world I would have expected the companies that make literally billions in Ad revenue to have done a better job at fighting the fraud issue but it seems as if there is no incentive for them to invest enough in these areas. Clear indicator of this is that Facebook hasn’t even listed Ad fraud as a concern on the Privacy, Safety and Security section of their website. It goes on to show how seriously they are looking at the problem or it means by publicly stating that there is a problem, they will be forced to address it.

In any case, we cannot rely on the companies alone to help us stay safe while shopping online and we must do our part as well. Hope that the tips outlined above help you navigate through the Ads online. That’s all for this post and if you found it useful please share with your family and friends. Also check out older posts on the blog for more useful content!