In the fall of 2019, Facebook sent a warning letter to Ads Inc., a San Diego marketing firm that bought over $ 50 million on Facebook ads that used celebrity images to target people without their permission bring to sign up for difficult purposes. cancel monthly subscriptions.
Ads Inc. then fired its employees and ceased operations. A statement said it would “cease operations for Ads Inc. and its affiliates.”
However, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed News with an international consortium of journalists led by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Facebook was unable to keep the remains of the company off its platform.
Until it closed in April, ezlp.io, a web domain previously controlled by Ads Inc., was hosting sites promoting scams, including fake cryptocurrency investments that devastated people financially in more than 50 countries. It is not known who now controls ezlp.io. Facebook accounts the company used to advertise are also still active. Those accounts were transferred to a new, unknown owner earlier this year, according to a source with knowledge of the process.
Company records in California and Puerto Rico show Ads Inc. is still an active business, but sources tell BuzzFeed News that the company has and has been selling or otherwise disposing of any assets it could – including some of its rented Facebook accounts was inactive last fall. Ads Inc. was founded by Asher Burke, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Kenya in March 2019. The company is now owned by his estate, whose executor is Brad Burke, Asher’s father. Brad Burke did not respond to any email or messages sent to his wife and daughter through Facebook and email.
Facebook has vowed to distribute this type of advertising.
“We don’t want ads trying to cheat people out of money on Facebook – they’re not good for people, undermine trust in our services, and damage our business, ”Rob Leathern, Facebook director of product management, told BuzzFeed News. “To counter this, we are not only working to identify and reject the ads ourselves, we are also blocking advertisers from our services and, in some cases, taking them to court. While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to research new technology and methods to stop these harmful ads and the people behind them. “
The continued operation of former Ads Inc. assets underscores that Facebook cannot completely remove scammers.
In July, Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen discovered his picture had been used in an ad run by an unknown person promoting crypto investment scams. Annoyed, he wrote to Aura Salla, head of Facebook’s EU division, to complain.
“So far we have found that this scam is being done extremely cleverly,” Salla wrote back on Messenger and apologized. “The amount of these scams is so great that it is impossible for human labor to verify them.”
Before the shutdown, Ads Inc. made more than $ 1 million in commissions promoting bogus cryptocurrency trading products that lured people into financial ruin.
“I have nothing to live for,” said Maj-Britt, a 67-year-old Swedish woman who became homeless after losing her savings and selling her home to cover losses on a similar cryptocurrency investment scam. (She asked not to reveal her full name to protect her privacy.)
The victims were drawn to Facebook ads falsely claiming that celebrities made money from automated cryptocurrency trading software with names like Bitcoin Revolution and Bitcoin Code. People were asked to click through to enter their personal information. This information was sent to call centers, which phone calls for money within minutes. In reality, the software doesn’t exist and its profits are a mirage.
Earlier this year, Dagens Nyheter, the OCCRP, and other media partners published the investigation into the fraud factory, which took place deep inside a crypto call center in Ukraine operated by a shadow company called the Milton Group. After the stories appeared, a source who claimed to be a law enforcement officer contacted Dagens Nyheter.
“I saw a screenshot of [one of] the celebrity ads that you used to illustrate one of your stories. This ad was created by Ads Inc., ”they wrote, sharing a link to an online database, ezlp.io, that contained tens of thousands of web pages in multiple languages that used celebrity images to promote crypto investment offers. These were the landing pages Ads Inc. sent to convince them to share personal information.
The company made no effort to disguise its property. The home page of the website had a login screen that said “Welcome to Ads Inc.” Multiple sources confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it was owned by Ads Inc.
The OCCRP found around 15,000 pages on ezlp.io that advertised at least 17 different investment offers in 11 languages. Some of the products have been the subject of public warnings from regulators in at least eight countries dating back to 2018. The relationship between Ads Inc., the people who bought their assets, and the Milton Group is unclear, but some of the crypto investment brands found on ezlp.io have also been listed in the Milton Group documents.
This business seems to have been lucrative. Ads Inc. began promoting crypto investments in the second quarter of 2019. In a presentation at a corporate meeting in July 2019, “crypto” was listed as one of the company’s “profits to celebrate,” generating $ 1.15 million in commission income for the quarter. According to the document, Crypto achieved a 120% return on investment, making it the company’s most profitable industry and a key priority for the next quarter.
It is unclear whether the website escaped the control of Ads Inc. after the company allegedly ceased operations. However, it was still being updated with new content until dark on April 25th – six months after Ads Inc. announced it had ceased operations.
Internal discussions on Facebook by BuzzFeed News indicate that the company continues to monitor the activities of former Ads Inc. employees. It is unclear what measures, if any, were taken.
“My team is currently investigating the former employees to understand the current state of their operations after the company is closed,” wrote a Facebook threat investigator in October on Workplace, the company’s internal discussion platform.