Scam ads pro­mot­ing fake tax breaks pros­per on Facebook

The Tribune (SLO) - - Insight - BY AMANDA SEITZ AND MAE AN­DER­SON

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.