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Facebook ad scam tricks users with images and video of Kickstarter products

A devious new scam is sweeping Facebook. 

Scammers find an interesting or popular product from crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, rip the item’s details, photos, and videos, and push them via Facebook ads as their own products. Victims of the fraud are either never sent the product or receive a knockoff version. 

I first came across the scheme when I was served a Facebook ad in my News Feed. A Facebook Page called “Promondeal” was promoting a well-produced video selling a new portable 1TB solid state drive. The video had hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments from real users asking questions about the device.

A screenshot of the scam ad that ran on Facebook for a 1TB hard drive from a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

A screenshot of the scam ad that ran on Facebook for a 1TB hard drive from a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

Image: Screenshot: mashable

However, there were two clear warning signs. To purchase the device, you were directed to “howwayforsh.site,” which is gibberish. And the asking price was $29.99. That’s right, thirty bucks for a 1TB flash drive.

“These sites are not made by us,” said a spokesperson for WarpDrives, the company behind the actual 1TB flash drive product on Kickstarter, in a message to Mashable. “The price they are offering is too low and would not even cover a fraction of the cost of manufacturing a real SSD with the specs that the WarpDrive has. The low price must trick the customers.” 

WarpDrives’ product hasn’t even been released yet. A preorder for the 1TB drive is currently available on Kickstarter for $129 and its estimated delivery date is April 2020.

“They are using all our marketing materials such as the Kickstarter campaign video and all graphics from the campaign,” they continued.

Not everyone in the Facebook ad’s comments fell for the scam. One user, James Marshall, caught my attention. Marshall, who works for an educational charity and runs a small business in Thailand with his family, has made it sort of his mission to warn the social network’s users about these scams. He even started his own Facebook Group dedicated to archiving these promoted posts. And there’s a lot of them.

Since discovering the flash drive ad, with the help of Marshall’s Facebook Group, I have uncovered a slew of Pages and websites pushing these scams on Facebook users on a daily basis. 

The video stolen from WarpDrives by the Promondeal page, for example, has more than 300,000 views. The post containing the video cannot be found on the Page’s feed, meaning it was specifically for a paid advertising campaign and that all of those views were from Facebook ads.

“I suspect the scammers are seeding Facebook ads, or more likely Facebook dark posts, to promote these products and hide their activity from everyone but their intended audience,” explained Satnam Narang, a senior research engineer at cybersecurity firm Tenable. “Using Facebook’s targeting tools would help them identify the right type of buyers.” 

The scammers are successful with some video ads racking up millions of views.

The scammers are successful with some video ads racking up millions of views.

Image: Screenshot: mashable

Another scam ad, this one using a video for a portable touchscreen monitor called BladeX, has more than 4 million video views. This view count is also entirely the result of a Facebook ad campaign. This scam ad is trying to sell the unreleased crowdfunded Indiegogo product for $43. The lowest price for the monitor during the campaign was $239.

Mashable reached out to Facebook, which investigated the scam ads and pages we sent over.

“We’ve long had proactive systems in place to catch and remove these kinds of ads from Facebook,” Facebook said in a statement to Mashable. “We also ask people to review businesses that they may have purchased from and we’ll take action on those with negative feedback scores. People can also quickly report an ad if they think it may violate our policies by tapping the three dots in the top right corner.”

How the scam works

Why advertise crowdfunded products from sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo? 

Narang said he hasn’t seen this particular scam before. But he says it’s reminiscent of other scams involving knock-off products, like counterfeit Ray-Bans

“It’s hard to gauge the prevalence of this type of scam but it has been a tried and true staple for many years,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to get a pair of sunglasses, or in this case, crowdfunded products, for cheap?”

Many of the ads are for offbeat gadgets, which makes sense. Consumers know that a Macbook Pro shouldn’t cost $400. But they might have trouble nailing down a realistic price for something novel or obscure. 

“The wow factor of products that nobody has seen before is a big reason,” said Marshall on the appeal of using crowdfunded products for the scam. “Plus, they have slick video content already ready to go, which is simply taken from the crowdfunding campaigns and edited to remove any details of the product name or manufacturer.”

Narang noted that while the scammers don’t claim to be associated with the crowdfunded projects directly, they don’t need to. 

“They’re just using the images and text to promote the products, which helps hide their association, while also saving them time when building these fraudulent ads and pages,” he said 

Kickstarter told Mashable it’s unfamiliar with this particular Facebook scam.

“It’s really unfortunate that someone would do that to an independent creator who is trying to bring their idea to life,” a Kickstarter spokesperson told us. “More broadly it does seem like any company that’s trying to sell its products online could be vulnerable to similar scams. I know there have been issues with what you might call brand hijacking.”

Marshall told me he too was duped by these ads, one for a travel backpack which he never received. But, from that one ad, Marshall is now experiencing something that also happened to me ever since I was served the flash drive scam ad. Facebook keeps showing us more scam ads.

“After buying from the scam site, it must have triggered something in my Facebook pixel,” says Marshall. “As soon as I’d bought one item from a Facebook advertiser it opened a floodgate of ads, many of them clearly fraudulent.”

A Facebook Pixel is a bit of code that a website owner can place on their site to track what people do on it. Using a Facebook Pixel, advertisers can target and retarget people based on the actions they make on their site.

“The scam ads became even more common after I created the group and started sharing the scam ads with members,” he continued. “The Facebook algorithm detected that I was ‘sharing’ this content, but not that I was sharing it to warn people. Now I can just scroll down my feed at any time of the day and a scam ad will usually appear very quickly. Last night I was browsing Facebook and found 5 different scam ads.”

A network of scammers

It’s difficult to tell who or how many people are behind this scheme. Marshall told me that from his group’s investigation, he believes most of these scams originate in China and the United States. 

Many of the scams follow a very similar pattern. They all use a Kickstarter or Indiegogo product in a Facebook ad posted by a generic Facebook Page with little to no history. In most instances, there’s nothing more than the scam ad they’re promoting on the Page’s feed.

The link to purchase the item directs users to a seemingly randomly generated URL, usually with an extension like “.site” or “.shop.” These new generic top level domain extensions usually run promotions for about $2-3 for the first year, making them even cheaper than registering a .com. 

Mashable checked the domain registration information for dozens of these scam sites. Most of the domains either use whois privacy to obscure their personal details or are registered to users in China. Of those domains, a majority are registered with the China-based registrar Alibaba Cloud Computing.

A screenshot of the homepage for scam site "howwayforsh.site."

A screenshot of the homepage for scam site “howwayforsh.site.”

Image: Screenshot: mashable

Many of the scam sites use the e-commerce solution Shopify, and use the same basic themes and templates provided by the platform. Some sites share the exact same text in their “About” or “Contact” pages. Some scammers don’t even bother registering a domain at all, opting to use the “.shopify.com” subdomain.

“Shopify believes in making commerce better for everyone, and we take concerns around the goods and services made available by merchants on our platform very seriously,” said a Shopify spokesperson in a statement to Mashable. “We have multiple teams who handle potential violations of (AUP) as well as fraud complaints. We have internal tools to monitor for fraudulent activity across the entire platform and we take action to investigate it and close shops when necessary.”

The company also removed the Shopify-powered websites we provided as examples of the scam.

If the scammer plans to ghost the buyer and send nothing, the scam site will only accept direct credit card payment. If the scammer plans on sending an item, but of course not the one ordered, they’ll also accept PayPal as they can use the tracking info to “prove” to PayPal that the buyer received the item.

A Facebook scam ad selling the XGIMI MoGo Pro, which actually retails for around $600.

A Facebook scam ad selling the XGIMI MoGo Pro, which actually retails for around $600.

Image: screenshot: mashable

To give you an example of the latter type of scammer, three people in Marshall’s group of around 500 members shared the same personal buying experience. All three ordered a $60 projector from one of these scam ads. 

It was later discovered that the projector, the XGIMI MoGo Pro, was lifted from IndieGogo and currently retails for nearly $600. When the packages arrived, the buyers opened it to discover a cardboard box smartphone “projector” — essentially, a magnifying glass — sold for less than $5 by the Chinese online shop AliExpress.

Here's what people actually received after ordering the fancy high-tech projector from the Facebook scam ads.

Here’s what people actually received after ordering the fancy high-tech projector from the Facebook scam ads.

Image: screenshot: mashable

Narang seemed surprised that some of these scams deliver a product at all.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the scammers to send cheap knockoffs because they’re having to go through the hassle of shipping a counterfeit good,” he said. “PayPal does have a policy in place for [getting refunds for counterfeit goods], but I can’t confirm how these counterfeit goods have been handled.”

Video projectors, handheld printers, and flash drives appear to be the more popular items used in the scams. 

A screenshot of a mini excavator being sold for $179 on  a scam Shopify store advertised on Facebook. The actual product retails for thousands of dollars.

A screenshot of a mini excavator being sold for $179 on  a scam Shopify store advertised on Facebook. The actual product retails for thousands of dollars.

Image: Screenshot: Mashable

However, scammers sometimes sell weirder items. For example, above is an ad for a mini excavator being sold for $179 on the website Rewojfknknvs. No, that’s not a typo. The real item, the Komatsu PC01, retails on sites like Alibaba, which operates AliExpress and Alibaba Cloud Computing, for thousands of dollars.

What can be done?

After reaching out to a few of the companies behind the real products used in these scams, it’s clear that they are pretty helpless in combating these frauds.

“We noticed [the scams] and reported that fake link,” a spokesperson for XGIMI, the company that created the real projector, told Mashable. “Please help us to report it wherever you see it.”

A WarpDrives spokesperson told me that they also reached out to Facebook and Shopify in hopes that action would be taken against the scammers.

“During our campaign many backers reported this to us and we have put out comments warning them that they are not sites authorized by us,” the spokesperson said. “Some of these sites are hosted on Shopify, we have reported them but their response has been slow. We have also reported such fake ads to Facebook.”

The scam Facebook Page and Shopify websites provided to me by WarpDrives are all still up and hawking the scam.

“I noticed that Facebook did very little to combat these ads,” Marshall told me when I asked why he decided to create his group. “Most of the time I just get a generic reply saying, ‘Thank you for your report, but this ad doesn’t breach any of our community standards.'”

Marshall estimates that around one out of every 10 scam ads he reports will actually result in the ad being removed. 

In addition, he tells me that his attempts to stop scammers are being stifled by Facebook’s moderation tools. Marshall said that numerous scam Facebook Pages have blocked him from commenting to warn people away from their products, including Pages he’s never interacted with. Mashable was able to comment on the Pages. 

Facebook’s advertising policies specifically prohibit ads that promote “products, services, schemes or offers using deceptive or misleading practices, including those meant to scam people out of money or personal information.”

The company also prohibits ads that push “deceptive, false, or misleading claims like those relating to the effectiveness or characteristics of a product or service or claims setting unrealistic expectations for users.” Facebook has similar bans on Pages that promote scams.

Last year, Facebook rolled out the Ad Activity tab, which requests feedback from users who purchase items from Facebook ads and Pages in order to root out bad actors. However, this specific scam prevention tool isn’t proactive and requires users to fall for a scam in the first place.

As of the publishing of this piece, three ads and Pages we sent to Facebook had been removed. But many other scam pages and ads looked into by Mashable are still live on the social network.

Promondeal, the China-based Facebook Page selling the 1TB flash drive, is still live on the site although it’s not currently running ads.

The scam continues…

While companies like Facebook and Shopify take their time responding to these schemes, some of them are expanding. 

“Many of the ads are now creating fake profiles to leave positive comments and reviews,” Marshall told me. “Recently I’ve noticed that the scammers are running seasonal ads. Halloween recently saw a whole range of fake ads for high quality professional style masks and buyers received cheap $3 plastic junk.”

This past Halloween, scammers jumped at the opportunity to use high quality latex masks for their fraud.

This past Halloween, scammers jumped at the opportunity to use high quality latex masks for their fraud.

Image: screenshot: mashable

Pictured above is a high-quality Freddy Krueger latex mask, complete with movable mouth. It’s sold by special effects companies for around $400 to $600.

And below is the knockoff, sold for a few bucks on AliExpress, that someone in Marshall’s group received after paying $30-$60 to a scammer.

Hey! That's not Freddy Krueger.

Hey! That’s not Freddy Krueger.

Image: screenshot: mashable

Mashable also reached out to Indiegogo, as well as other creators on sites whose products were used in the scams. We will update this when we hear back from them as well.

Freddy Krueger was unavailable for comment.

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