Scam ads promoting fake tax breaks prosper on Facebook
Hundreds of ads on Facebook promised U.S. homeowners that they were eligible for huge state tax breaks if they installed new solar-energy panels. There was just one catch: None of it was true.
The scam ads used photos of nearly every U.S. governor – and sometimes President Donald Trump – to claim that with new, lucrative tax incentives, people might actually make money by installing solar technology on their homes. Facebook users only needed to enter their addresses, email, utility information and phone number to find out more.
Those incentives don’t exist.
While the ads didn’t aim to bilk people of money directly – and it wasn’t possible to buy solar panels through these ads – they led to websites that harvested personal information that could be used to expose respondents to future come-ons, both scammy and legitimate. It’s not clear that the data was actually used in such a manner.
Facebook apparently didn’t take action until notified by state government officials who noticed the ads.
The fictitious notices reveal how easily scammers can pelt internet users with misinformation for months, undetected. They also raise further questions about whether big tech companies such as Facebook are capable of policing misleading ads, especially as the 2020 elections – and the prospect of another onslaught of online misinformation – loom.
“This is definitely concerning – definitely, it’s misinformation,” said Young Mie Kim, a University of WisconsinMadison professor who studied 5 million Facebook ads during the 2016 elections. “I keep telling people: We don’t have any basis to regulate such a thing.”
Experts say websites and apps need to be more transparent about the ads that run on their platforms.
Last year, Facebook launched a searchable database that provides details on political ads it runs, including who bought them and the age and gender of the audience. But it doesn’t make that information available for other ads. Twitter offers its own database of ads and promoted tweets. Google has an archive for political ads only.
The partial approaches allow misleading ads to fester. One problem is the fact that ads can be targeted so narrowly that journalists and watchdog groups often won’t see them.
“That allows people to do more dirty tricks,” said Ian Vanderwalker, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.