Earlier this month, some users scrolling through Facebook may have seen an unexpected message, apparently from CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself.
Facebook recently rebranded itself as Meta, and the advertisement, which included a photo of Zuckerberg in front of a background of purple polygons, claimed to offer a chance for users to invest in a new Meta cryptocurrency.
Another ad, posted around the same time and also promoted on Facebook, was tied to a page called “Metaverse” and similarly offered a shot at a presale of the upcoming “Meta token,” saying “the thrilling digital future has arrived.” The ads both included Meta’s new logo, an infinity sign.
But Meta doesn’t offer any such cryptocurrency. The ads, until recently available for view in Facebook’s public ad library, were frauds that slipped through Facebook’s content moderation process, despite the use of Zuckerberg’s image and the company’s new logo.
Meta’s rules for advertisers on Facebook place strict limits on how ads sell cryptocurrency, but The Markup identified several pages that recently placed ads for nonexistent “tokens” using the logos of large tech companies and even the faces of some of Big Tech’s most prominent people, including Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
While scams in Facebook ads aren’t a new phenomenon and cryptocurrency scams have plagued platforms well beyond Facebook, these ads are particularly brazen: a network of scammers imitating the tech industry’s biggest players, on the tech industry’s largest social media platform, to shake down its users.
“Meta Tokens” and Other Tech Company “Coins”
The ads The Markup found—about 20—are from pages with names like “Metaverse,” “Web 3.0,” “Amazon coin,” or “MSFT Web 3.0 Metaverse.” Some ads ran for days before they were pulled down, even those that prominently featured imagery like Meta’s infinity symbol logo or Zuckerberg.
One of the ads linked out to a site that claimed to be associated with Meta and featured not only photos of Zuckerberg but also of chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg as well as other C-suite executives at the company.
The site claimed the fictional token would launch with a “BIG blastoff” on Feb. 22 and that potential investors could join a presale by making a purchase through the cryptocurrency bitcoin or Ethereum. The minimum investment: $200.
The Markup found one ad, which promoted “the birth of META Token,” after it was served directly to a reporter’s personal account. Others were found through Facebook’s public ad library or through data from Citizen Browser, a Markup project that collects data from a paid panel of Facebook users in the United States.
It’s not only Meta that’s being imitated in ads, we found. Other ads have used tech companies’ trademarks to push “investments” in “tokens.” One included the Apple logo and offered the opportunity to invest in a fake “iMetaverse token.”
Panelists in The Markup’s Citizen Browser project saw multiple pages dedicated to nonexistent “Amazon tokens.” Pages included the e-commerce giant’s logo or photos of Bezos. Two ads, according to data from Citizen Browser, were targeted directly to users who had shown an interest in bitcoin.
“You can participate in the birth of Amazon Token and be one of the first buyers,” the associated page for one ad said. “Get Started Today!”
Other ads shown to our panelists featured Musk’s face and suggested an investment in a “Tesla token.” A similar ad, also seen by panelists in the Citizen Browser project, offered a token for WLMRT—a nonexistent Walmart cryptocurrency.
The Markup has found cryptocurrency ads using images of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Source: Facebook
Facebook uses a combination of AI and human moderators to flag advertisements. But the company’s human moderation is “entirely inadequate,” and it’s not clear how many scams its AI flags before they reach users, said Paul Bischoff, the editor of Comparitech, a site that rates security software and has monitored illegal Facebook ads.
“We don’t really know how big the problem is,” he said, “but there’s obviously still a lot of them getting through.”
The ads reviewed by The Markup are unlikely to have met the company’s standards for ads. For one, Meta’s rules include tight restrictions around any cryptocurrency ads. Potential sellers must meet specific eligibility requirements, then submit a form to Facebook for approval before they begin to sell ads.
Advertisers on the platform also must be careful about how they associate themselves with Facebook. Ads may mention “Facebook” so long as it’s not the “most prominent feature” of an ad. Using the company’s corporate logo is prohibited, and ads cannot imply an endorsement. The company’s policy doesn’t specifically mention use of “Meta.”
Some of the pages serving the ads were removed before The Markup reached out to Meta for comment, and the company removed others after The Markup’s request for comment.
“The ads flagged to us violated our policies against deceptive and scammy behavior so we removed them,” Meta spokesperson Mark Ranneberger said in an emailed statement. “Our systems get better when people report this kind of behavior in ads by tapping the three dots in the top right corner and selecting ‘Report Ad.’ ”
The ads aren’t the only example of Facebook dealing with imitators on its platform. In 2018, The New York Times reported on how fake Mark Zuckerbergs were scamming Facebook users, enticing some with a fraudulent “Facebook lottery” win and then requesting payments before receiving the cash. The Times uncovered hundreds of accounts on Facebook and Instagram impersonating Zuckerberg and Sandberg.
Media personalities in multiple countries have filed suit against Facebook after their images appeared in cryptocurrency scams, and in 2019 a court in the Netherlands ordered the company to more proactively stop scam ads that feature celebrity images.
Cryptocurrency has also become a popular tool for cybercriminals, although some high-profile busts suggest that the difficulty of tracking down transactions has been overstated.
In a report released last year, the Federal Trade Commission said reports of cryptocurrency fraud had “skyrocketed” and that almost 7,000 people had reported a total of more than $80 million in losses between October 2020 and May 2021—an increase of 12 times in frequency and 1,000 percent in money lost, according to the agency.
Losses reported due to cryptocurrency fraud between October 2020 and May 2021.
Source: Federal Trade Commission
Around the internet, imitation is a strategy that pays off for those scams.
Twitter, for example, has spent years dealing with scammers on its platform attempting to borrow the identity of Elon Musk.
Some savvy hackers have, in the past, taken over verified Twitter users’ accounts, switched the accounts’ profile photos to Musk’s image, and claimed to offer massive cryptocurrency rewards in exchange for a relatively small investment of cryptocurrency. In its recent report on cryptocurrency scams, the FTC said it had received reports of Musk impersonators taking more than $2 million in just six months.
According to the agency’s report, people in their 20s and 30s “reported losing far more money on investment scams than on any other type of fraud, and more than half of their reported investment scam losses were in cryptocurrency,” while users 50 and older were relatively unlikely to report being victims of such scams.
The ad Facebook served to a Markup reporter offering a chance to get in on the ground floor of “META Token” was targeted toward American men between the ages of 30 and 64 and offered them a chance to “be one of the first buyers” of the new currency.