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Facebook Enables Advertisers to Exploit Coronavirus Fears

Digital Citizens
Mar 19 · 5 min read

New Research Reveals Broken Promises as Potential Scam Artists

Sell Medical Masks, Test Kits and “Vaccines” on Facebook and Instagram

As consumers face historic physical and economic threats posed by the spread of the COVID-19, commonly called the coronavirus, Facebook is enabling shadowy sellers to market and sell medical masks at a time when they are in short supply for professionals on the front lines treating coronavirus patients. Researchers also found sellers promising “vaccines” and test kits, and the examples are clear attempts to prey on consumers’ fears and worries.

Researchers from the Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) and Coalition for a Safer Web (CSW) found that Facebook has failed on its promise of March 6, 2020 to implement a policy “banning ads and commerce listings selling medical face masks.”

Since that false promise, dozens of posts, videos, and paid ads for medical equipment were uncovered in searches on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram. In recent days, advertisements for coronavirus test kits and even fake vaccines have shown up on the platforms.

One week ago, CSW researchers shared examples of medical mask ads with reporters at NBCNews.com. In subsequent reviews, researchers have found the exact same pages — even after being publicly outed and delivered to Facebook — still up and circulating.

Here is an example below:

Researchers from CSW shared screenshots and links from 17 Facebook and Instagram pages offering medical masks for sale with NBC News, including the screenshot on the left above. NBCNews.com published their story on March 9. As of March 17, all of those links are still live. On the right is a portion of an Instagram chat between the researcher (in gray) and the seller (in white). The seller asks the research to pay for the masks with bitcoin and gift cards — which is often a sign of a dubious seller.

Medical Mask Sales

The medical mask shortage in the United States is further enhancing the current crisis. It was reported on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 that hospital workers in Seattle are so desperate for equipment, they have been forced to make their own masks from office supplies.

The U.S. Attorney General William Barr has promised to crack down on scam artists preying on Americans desperately trying to protect themselves from the coronavirus. DCA has sent these findings to the Justice Department so investigators can track down those exploiting coronavirus fears.

CSW researchers found this paid ad on Facebook in the news feed on March 17th. This screenshot claims the masks are “FDA approved.” The site where these masks are being sold was registered on March 4, 2020 with Tucows. In 2015, VICE reported “Tucows landed on the US Trade Representative’s annual list of notorious markets due to the company’s practice of not responding to takedown requests from companies alleging that Tucows registers domains for sites selling illegal goods.”

Additionally, CSW researchers found sponsored advertisements for questionable coronavirus products running adjacent to user news feeds. These are often juxtaposed with dubious ads running next to posts for legitimate businesses. One advertisement (below) for “N95 Protective Masks” runs next to a post in the newsfeed from CityMD, a legitimate urgent care center in New York.

CSW researchers found this ad for “N95 Protective Masks” (see top right corner) running on March 16. The post is in the newsfeed from CityMD, a well-known urgent care center in New York City.

The research team clicked on the ad above, which redirected them to voxmask.com — another seller that emerged shortly after the coronavirus gripped the world’s attention. On its website (see home page screenshot below), The Voxmask home page calls the pictured product “#1 Best Selling Protective Mask” even though the “About Us” page on the same site says Voxmask was “(r)ecently created in 2020 to protect families across the globe from the COVID-19 outbreak.”Researchers checked whois.com and found that the website was created the same day as the post (March 16), hides the owner’s information, and is also registered with Tucows.

The site provides an address where buyers can get refunds if they are dissatisfied with the product. When researchers searched the address in Google Maps, they found a one-story home in southern California behind a fast food restaurant.

While it’s not clear whether Facebook platforms aren’t enforcing company policies or are unable to keep up with the problem, one thing is clear: Facebook is not fulfilling the promise it made on March 6th, which was articulated by Facebook director of product management Rob Leathern:

“We’re banning ads and commerce listings selling medical face masks. We’re monitoring COVID19 closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency.”

Facebook’s failure to fulfill its promise leaves Americans even more vulnerable to scam artists preying on those of us looking for any way to protect against the coronavirus.

CSW’s Eric Feinberg, who developed the Global Intellectual Property Enforcement Center (GIPEC) technology used to conduct this research, said he’s found what he calls “algorithmic amplification.” In short, that means Facebook’s advertising platform will repeatedly deliver ads based on your previous searches and what its analytics believes you could be most interested in purchasing. In real terms, an initial search for ‘N95 masks’ or ‘coronavirus masks’ or ‘medical masks’ leads to ads for mask sellers coming in waves, even when a user is no longer looking for mask sellers. Fueled by Facebook’s algorithms, created by Facebook engineers, sellers begin finding consumers.

To determine whether these sellers are engaging in profiteering or scams, Digital Citizens placed orders for masks from sellers using Facebook. Digital Citizens reached out to sellers who were, in spite of the Justice Department’s warning, brazen enough to share WhatsApp contact information on their posts. Some sellers asked for payments with gift cards or bitcoins, others had posts riddled with misspellings — typically a tell-tale sign of a scam. This report will be updated once orders are received.

Instagram posts offering N95 and/or surgical masks with WhatsApp numbers where consumers can directly contact sellers.

Test Kits and Vaccines

Researchers also found some instances of advertisers on Facebook owned Instagram offering coronavirus test kits and even “vaccines” and cures for sale. There is no cure that has been tested and proven to work by any governing health organization in the world.

After finding this Instagram post offering a coronavirus “testing” kit on March 17 (left), CSW researchers contacted the seller and discussed how they could purchase the kit.
The broken English and request for a bank account are common signs of suspicious behavior. CSW researchers found a Facebook post offering this “testing” kit for sale on March 18.
CSW researchers found this post offering cures on March 16 and 17, including one with a phone number at the bottom (on the left).

A Plea to Facebook and the Justice Department

What concerned citizens need now more than ever in history is accurate information and certainty. Facebook’s services are more critical than ever in a world of social distancing, quarantines and “stay in place” orders. Facebook is a communications lifeline for literally billions of people. Inevitably in times of crisis bad actors attempt to take advantage of societal fear. Facebook shouldn’t help them.

Digital Citizens calls on the company to fulfill its promises and remove all ads, posts, and photos making medical mask, vaccine and “cure” offers that prey on citizens’ fears about the coronavirus. Facebook and Instagram should be able to do this instantly. Digital Citizens will monitor this situation and update findings.

Digital Citizens also calls on the Justice Department to swiftly act to hold bad actors, who take advantage of the coronavirus, accountable. In this crisis, strong action will deter others from engaging in criminal or illicit acts that harm consumers or add to confusion and anxiety.

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