Fake celebrity scam ads hijack Facebook accounts to target Australians

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Scammers are using multinational brands — including a food delivery company and beloved character Paddington Bear — in a bid to steal money from Australian Facebook users.

The ABC has found many examples of corporate Facebook pages being hijacked to push fake scam ads, featuring celebrities like David Koch, Richard Wilkins and Sonia Kruger, politicians including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and business figures like Andrew “Twiggy” Forest and Gina Rinehart, among others.

While some scammers set up Facebook pages, it appears many are hacking into existing pages to reach new victims.

These can be abandoned or dormant pages that are vulnerable to infiltration because their owner isn’t paying attention.

Professor Mark Andrejevic, a digital communications researcher from Monash University, says often these pages are for politicians and bands.

“There may be people who set up pages for a particular point in time, like they’re promoting an album or they’re running a campaign,” he says. “But some of them look like they’re deliberately created to run scam ads and might be deliberately created to look like a band site.”

“So you’ll go to one and it’ll be music, but it’s just not clear whether it was a band that created it and then neglected it or whether somebody just made up a fake band in order to put it up a website and then use that to serve scam ads.”

Food delivery with a side of scandal

The hijacked pages can be much larger too. ABC News has uncovered multiple examples of multinational companies having their Facebook pages compromised by scammers.

Pages that have served scam ads to Australians included verified Facebook pages for food delivery service DoorDash in Australia, a network of pages run by Ethiopian Airlines, and the Paddington Bear movie, along with a series of politicians and musicians.

They were found among ads contributed by Facebook users to the Australian Ad Observatory project, a university research project run by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. The ABC is a partner in the project.

There is no suggestion that these companies deliberately served their audiences scam ads.

The ad served by the verified DoorDash page was seen in November last year and used the face of David Koch and the Sky News logo.

A spokesperson for DoorDash confirmed the page was compromised by a third party “and was promptly blocked by Meta due to unusual activity”.

“Our team worked with Meta to resolve the incident and remove the falsified posts,” they said.

“Following resolution of the incident, the restriction on the DoorDash account was lifted.”

The verified page for the Paddington Movie in Belgium, which retains its blue tick, was also hijacked by a third party, running another ad featuring David Koch in September last year.

Within hours of ABC News contacting Meta about this page, the platform removed most of the posts and images that had been published on it since 2017.

ABC News has also found at least nine distinct advertisements that were run across a series of official government-owned Ethiopian Airlines pages in November 2022.

A Meta spokesperson said the company is “currently reviewing these ads”.

“Scammers present a challenge in any environment, including social media,” they said.

“Meta is constantly tackling scams through a combination of technology, such as new machine learning techniques and specially trained reviewers, to identify content and accounts that violate our policies.”

Who the scammers target

An Austrian politician’s Facebook page gives an unlikely insight into how scammers are targeting Australians.

Josef Weidenholzer is a university academic and a former politician. A member of the European Parliament until 2019, aligned with the centre-left Social Democratic Party, he maintains a Facebook page, posting a handful of times a month.

Last year, his page was advertising scam celebrity cryptocurrency ads to Australians on the other side of the world — 28 ads were purchased on the page in March and April last year, nearly all of them using the images of Australian celebrities.

The ads were seen by between 122,000 and 154,000 Australians, according to Meta ad library data.

In some but not all cases, Meta removed ads for breaching its policies.

Mr Weidenholzer has confirmed to ABC News that his page was hijacked by an unauthorised person who placed the ads.

We usually have very little idea of who scammers are targeting, but because Mr Weidenholzer is a politician, ads on his page are subject to Meta’s more detailed disclosure regime.

There is a heavy tilt toward users who are male and older.

But the targeted audiences vary depending on which celebrity’s image is being co-opted.

[Graph: gender]

We have grouped the ads by which celebrity they feature and looked at the typical audiences across each group.

In this sample, ads using the images of Karl Stefanovic, James Packer, Curtis Stone and Adam Hills were exclusively seen by men.

Gina Rinehart ads saw a nearly even demographic split, while whoever has placed these ads clearly believes Channel 7 presenter Sonia Kruger appeals more to women.

[Graph: age]

No one under 24 saw a single one of the ads, and the vast majority of those who saw the ads were over 45.

Gina Rinehart ads are targeted to the oldest demographic, while Adam Hills and Waleed Aly have been chosen to appeal to younger users.

This is only a small sample of ads, posted by one hijacker, and it is possible other ads using the same celebrities are targeted at different demographics.

Page hijacking a common occurrence

Sarah Cavanagh, the manager of outreach and education at charity IDCare, says so far this year her organisation has supported around 1,000 people who have had their social media accounts compromised.

Not all of those will have had their pages hijacked to promote fake celebrity investment scams.

“We also see a large number of cases of extortion as a result of that social media account compromise, both for individual social media accounts and businesses,” she says.

“We rarely see the account being handed back after payment demands, and in most cases, paying results in further ongoing demands for payment.”

Can Meta do more?

While it may be difficult for Meta to weed out every single one of these scam ads, there are some relatively simple measures that would filter many out.

Many of them are the same methods ABC News used to find the ads for this story.

By searching for phrases that commonly occur in these ads, or advertisers running ads in multiple languages, the platform would be able to find many of the offenders.

“It’s pretty easy to go into the Facebook ad library and use some of the key search terms that come up in these ads and you’ll find dozens of them or more,” Professor Andrejevic says.

“I don’t think it would be hard for Facebook to find them, which led us to conclude that Facebook just doesn’t really have a high motivation to seek them out and stop them, in part because it doesn’t seem to face liability for what’s happening … and they make money off of them.”

“If there are no consequences to them for running these ads and they’re making money off of them, the logic is, why not let them run until somebody complains?”

(Original ABC Article)