Digital Marketing Redux   //   March 28, 2024

Brands report a rise in imposter advertisers on platforms like Meta & TikTok

The Hippie Shake, a U.K.-based ’70s-inspired apparel brand, first noticed fake accounts advertising its products on Facebook at the end of January. Founder and managing director Ben Hession told Modern Retail the problem has been “a pain” for the small team and seems to come in waves.

Here’s how it works: A person comes across a Facebook ad boasting unbelievable discounts for The Hippie Shake’s products. The Facebook user is taken to a website that has many of the trappings of a legitimate brand page: lots of product imagery, a banner advertising free shipping. But in their rush to take advantage of a deal, the user might miss that the website URL doesn’t exactly line up with The Hippie Shake’s true website. The person begins to suspect something is amiss after an order confirmation email doesn’t arrive. That’s when someone might angrily email The Hippie Shake, only to realize they’ve been duped.

The Hippie Shake is one of many online brands receiving increased reports of fake ads like this on sites such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Last year, the New York Times looked at how brands like Bombas and Rothy’s are dealing with the issue. In some cases, customers fall for these scams and end up ordering fake products. Other times, the customer doesn’t receive anything at all.

Brands, meanwhile are left to deal with the fallout. Even though they aren’t responsible for the issue, some customers may feel betrayed by the brand, or wary of ordering from them again. But brands have little recourse. They can advise people to alert their credit card companies. They can also give customers tips on how to avoid similar scams in the future.

The other course of action is to try and get these ads removed before an unsuspecting customer falls victim to them. Currently, Meta’s Brands Rights Protection tool allows brands to protect their intellectual property by reporting fraudulent Facebook or Instagram ads, accounts or pages pretending to be the brand. It also covers Facebook Shops, Facebook Marketplace and buy-and-sell groups.

However, some brands in the program have reported little to no improvement since using it. Instead, they mostly resort to manual detection and flagging. According to companies that spoke to Modern Retail, they say these types of tools only scratch the surface in combating fake advertisers so far.

Meta did not return a request for comment on how the program is working. 

A whack-a-mole game 

For companies, a big frustration is that dealing with fake sellers takes up a lot of their resources.

Carolyn Grana, director of digital experience at clothing Natural Life, said that her company started spotting fake ads for its products on Facebook at the end of last year. “At first we thought it’s just one account that’ll go away,” she said. “But it started getting out of control, with hundreds of DMs and calls to our customer service team coming in.”

Natural Life then signed up for Meta’s Brand Protection program. The onboarding process includes submitting logos and other trademarked creatives that can help detect fake ads. But, she said, “We didn’t have any success with the AI detection, so it’s all been done manually and through our customers sending us screenshots and links.” 

Once these fake accounts are flagged as fraud, the ads are taken down within 48 hours. “But by the time we’d get one ad down, they’d launch triple the amount.”

Halle Hughes, who also works on Natural Life’s digital experience team, said that some of these sponsored posts come from Facebook accounts with names like “Live&Natural” and “naturallife-discount.” In some cases, the customers are receiving counterfeit products — but mostly, they get charged and get nothing in the mail.

“It’s led to people getting upset with us thinking we’re scamming them,” Hughes said. “Some are commenting on our pages and posting reviews across the internet saying to not buy from this brand.” At its peak, CX tickets hit about 1,000 a week from upset people, totaling about 5,000 to date. Grana said these accounts are also becoming highly sophisticated, often changing the website URLs, which helps skirt a lot of detection measures. 

Some of these accounts advertise Natural Life apparel for just a couple of dollars. Others claim to be running sitewide or “warehouse sales.” Natural Life rarely offers the proclaimed “90% off” that many of these fake sites are promoting.

Natural Life regularly posts tips on how to avoid falling for these fake ads. One of the company’s tips is that customers should only interact with its verified account on Facebook and Instagram, which has a blue checkmark.

One customer recently commented on Instagram, “I had an entire cart full of items when I happened to catch the web address. I quickly backed out and deleted my history. If it sounds too good to be true it usually is.” Some customers are even pitching in by reporting the fake Facebook accounts for removal, Grana said, but are told by Meta they’re not breaking any policies. 

One vendor that works with brands on scanning for these sites says the issue is only growing. BrandVerity, a provider that specializes in advertising fraud and trademark infringement, works with hundreds of e-commerce brands to scan the web for imposter ads.

David Iglesias, who heads regional sales at BrandVerity, said demand for the company’s services has spiked in the last 18 to 24 months. “The first aspect is to identify where this traffic is coming from, then take action to try to take them down,” Iglesias said. Each company — whether it is Meta, Google or TikTok — will have different reporting mechanisms.

Iglesias doesn’t foresee these platforms totally eradicating the issue anytime soon. “Of course, it wouldn’t be an ideal situation for companies like us, but so far the platforms have left it to the clients to take down these problematic ads,” Iglesias said.

Hughes said Natural Life recently sought advice from other brands, including Bombas, saying “they’ve shared that it’s a persistent problem and recommend documenting all instances daily with Meta.”

Despite Meta’s efforts to provide tools that help detect fake ads, businesses say the tech giant isn’t doing enough.

“Our Meta rep has been non-responsive, which is extremely frustrating,” The Hippie Shake’s Hession said. “We are signed up to the Brand Protection Program and this is helpful, however, it takes up a lot of our time which is so precious in a small business.” It usually takes the company two to three days to get the ads down, “and then more inevitably pop up,” Hession said.

The Hippie Shake has also tried to get verified numerous times, so customers feel more comfortable shopping with the brand, but it keeps getting rejected, Hession said. “We feel this is the least Meta could do for us, as we believe some customers are nervous to shop with us as they’ve heard people have been scammed.” 

Improved tools for tracking 

Bombas has been dealing with fake ads and sites pretending to be the brand for well over a year. CMO Kate Huyett said that while the number has dropped, the brand is still combating them daily.

In the last six months, Bombas saw a 70% year-over-year drop in fake site-related customer inquiries. “This year, we saw 40% fewer fake sites,” Huyett said, due to the brand catching them more quickly.

However, many of these fake sites are running more ads. “Last year we were seeing two to four ads per site, this year we saw eight to 12, so the net impact is harder to suss out,” she said. Often, this activity ramps up around the holidays.

Like Natural Life, Bombas tells customers “to be sure they’re shopping on,” Huyett said. Bombas also uses third-party services to detect these fake sites.

Huyett, for her part, said working with Meta has been key. She added that the platform’s tracking tools have significantly improved since this time last year, when documenting and reporting was done manually. While Bombas isn’t privy to Meta’s internal approach to the problem, Huyett said, “They’ve built a new business unit that focuses on this issue specifically, so we’re working closely with them on it. 

But it’s no longer a Meta-only problem.

Fake Bombas ads are also popping up on TikTok Shop, a platform on which it doesn’t sell. Huyett said the company is similarly working with TikTok on tracking these accounts. “Where we are with TikTok is still a bit more manual in process,” she said, when compared to Meta’s latest tools.

“The reality is that there’s not that much we can do on our own,” Huyett said. “Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder for customers to tell what’s real, folks in the fraud space are savvy.” 

For these companies, they are still trying to figure out what the long-term ramifications could be. “It obviously impacts the reputation of the company — but also our marketing spend and ability to acquire customers,” Natural Life’s Grana said.