A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf

Last week we wrote about the five tell-tale signs Social Media scams. There tends to be two different types of ways that fraudsters look to exploit social media users for their own financial gain.

  • Setting up Facebook groups that pretend to be owned and operated by brand holders
  • Buying adverts on different Social Media platforms that look the same but use a network of different domain names

In this post we are going to focus on the latter scenario.

The growth of Social Media has been nothing short of phenomenal. Almost every Social Media network is a living example of a tipping point, as described by the best-selling book of the same name by Malcolm Gladwell where it experiences explosive growth as internet users jump on the latest fad. The fact that most platforms now essentially do and offer the same thing is irrelevant – for a significant number of social media users it is all about how many friends/followers/likes/retweets and comments they get.

It is no surprise that social media advertising revenue growth continues to outstrip revenues streams from many offline businesses. In 2019, Facebook generated nearly $70 billion from advertising, accounting for more than 98% of the company’s total revenue. With 2.7 billion active users, that means that for every active user, they are responsible for generating $25 for Facebook. That’s pretty impressive and why Facebook and others are continually looking at increasing the number of advertisers and the volume of ads we see.

Because of the way that Social Media platforms capture the data we voluntarily add, as we as some of our search habits, interests or what advertisers we have engaged with before, they offer highly targeted data for businesses big and small. Whereas traditional advertising, such as print or TV can be targeted at a wide demographic – advertising in The Standard newspaper for instance is relevant for a London-focused campaign, it is hard to be able to target any ads through the newspaper on specific age or interest groups. The Social Media’s huge databases of actionable intelligence allows advertisers to be very specific on who they want to target, with which message, on which days, at what times and what the call to action is. Social Media advertising has been a game changer for many small businesses.

But is has also allow those with nefarious intentions to use exactly the same actionable intelligence, the same tactics and the same calls to action to commit fraud. It is incredibly difficult for the Social Media networks to stop many of the advertisers with illicit intentions from launching a campaign although they are relatively quick at taking them down once they are notified of issues.

But that can be days or even weeks in some cases, during which time ads could have been seen by thousands, even millions of people and significant damage has been done. In our previous post about social media scams we focused on five tell-tale signs that an advert could be a scam, with the advertiser’s aim in gaining your personal and financial details. Often the only way anybody will know that a website which is advertising on Social Media is a scam is when any goods or services that have been ordered fail to materialise. Naturally, the scammer may appear to be helpful in dealing with perceived delays of orders. “It’s Christmas and the Royal Mail has severe backlogs”, ‘Brexit has meant our goods are stuck in a warehouse in Belgium” or “Our delivery firm have got a COVID-19 outbreak”. All genuine reasons for goods being delayed, but also very handy for the scammers to continue their illicit practice before their websites and ads are shut down.

One tactic that some fraudsters use is to register a bunch of domain names that on the face of it seem relatively harmless and don’t draw any unwarranted attention from brand holders by using trademarks or key terms but all appear on Social Media as identical ads and resolve to identical websites. Why? Because they use the different domains to focus on different demographics of users. The fraudsters have SEO and Social Media advertising experts who will tweak their ads to get the best return on investment. So when you see the same ad time and time again it is worth checking on the domain name being used and doing a Whois search to see when it was registered. The chances are it would have been relatively recently and the registrant details will be protected with a privacy company’s details.

Last year, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 467,361 complaints, with reported losses exceeding $3.5 billion. This will be the tip of the iceberg. Many victims will not report the crimes they experienced to the authorities for a variety of reasons. According to the study last year, 94% of respondents who had admitted to have been scammed online said that they had originally connected with the fraudsters via Facebook or subsidiary platform Instagram.

There are some fantastic small businesses who use Facebook ads to generate their revenues. The ads provide low cost ways to reach targeted audiences across the globe and have undoubtedly contributed massively to the global economies. But that bonhomie has also allowed the fraudsters to grow their illicit businesses. We all need to play a part in limiting their successes by being vigilant and aware of potential scams. If you do see multiple ads for good and services on Facebook, stop and ask why a company would be doing that. Do you own research and then decide whether the potential reward is worth the risk.

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