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8 Mar 2022

Scams, fake news and rip-offs lurking in sponsored ads

Misleading ads on popular news websites are hooking victims into fake news and scams

Targeted sponsored ads impersonating news articles contain nasty scams, rip-offs and fake news, Which? finds.

When scrolling through news websites, you'll probably have noticed lots of 'sponsored' articles with attention-grabbing headlines peppered amongst the stories of the day. Ads can link you through compelling fake news stories, copycat pages of trusted news websites.

You might know it as 'clickbait' and much of it clearly looks like internet spam. But many of these ads are carefully worded to suck you in, targeted specifically at you, using your location and internet habits to catch your interest.

Phoney investment opportunities

Some examples of the kinds of adverts we found

We carried out a snapshot investigation, looking at a selection of national and local news websites during one afternoon to see what adverts were displayed. We chose five news sites based on user traffic and those that we've received reports about hosting dodgy ads.

Although we didn't find any fake celebrity-endorsed cryptocurrency or other investment opportunities being advertised, we did find suspicious investment opportunities being offered by unregulated firms.

Marcus, an experienced investor, had been interested in experimenting with cryptocurrency for some time. He spotted an article on his local news website about people in his area, Edinburgh, making impressive profits from crypto. He was linked through to what he thought was a Daily Mirror article about a trading platform endorsed by Elon Musk.

'I follow Musk with interest. I know he has links to crypto, so the story didn't seem out of the ordinary, and I believed it was a genuine news article,' Marcus told us. He signed up for more information, and within a few hours, he received emails and a call from the trading platform he believed he would be joining, pressuring him to start investing with £10,000.

Marcus mentioned this investment opportunity to his son who looked into it and thankfully realised it was fake before any money was handed over. Scams like this, falsely using successful and popular celebrities to give products and services credibility are also commonly advertised on other websites, on social media, as well as by email.

Dodgy tax rebate services

Example of a targeted 'make a claim' advert

In our snapshot investigation, we also found many misleading ads promising readers were entitled to make claims for various tax rebates.

We've looked into some of these services in the past which are often also advertised on search engines. The ads often 'find out if you're eligible to claim' anything from marriage tax breaks to travel delays.

The companies behind them charge a fee to apply for tax relief you could quickly do yourself for free. Or they make a claim on your behalf and charge commission on any payout you receive. Often they are not upfront about how much it costs, and fees can be excessive.

We suspect some of these advertisements actually exist to harvest people's personal details. They encourage the reader to answer a few seemingly harmless questions to find out if they might be 'eligible' to claim money back.

These ads were by far the most predominant, appearing across all the news sites we looked at. Marriage tax, tax breaks, free to apply for. One promised to get us a payout if we worked in a job that required us to wear a uniform and asked for a staff employee number.

We looked into several companies that placed these kinds of ads. There were very few details available about their background, and the directors of one company don't appear to exist.

It's unclear how they intend to use the personal information they're collecting, which raises suspicions that they could be collecting your details to target you with nuisance calls and emails or sell your data on - potentially to scammers.

The adverts you see are often targeted at you specifically, based on your web search history and information saved on your internet browser's account, such as your age and location. This is another reason these ads can be highly persuasive as they know what you want to see. We also found the majority of ads contained wording aimed specifically at people aged over 60.

We also encountered ads that encourage you to download free software to 'deep clean' your computer, or improve your computer's speed. This poses a serious risk of spyware or malware that could harm your device and compromise your security.

Fake news ads peddling scams

Interestingly, when we surveyed 1,253 Which? members, a staggering 98% told us they don't trust these kinds of adverts on news sites. But a small percentage (2%) of those we surveyed said they had in fact been scammed by online ads like this.

Jennifer wasn't sure where she'd first heard about the CBD gummies that promised to relieve her arthritis pain. But she clearly remembered seeing what she thought was a Daily Mail article singing their praises, and claiming Dragon's Den star Deborah Meaden had backed the manufacturer during an episode of the TV show.

'I thought I was paying £5 for a sample, but £200 was taken from my account', Jennifer told us. When she complained, it apologised and said a mistake had been made. All she needed to do was return the supplements free of charge when she received them for a full refund. But they never arrived, and the company refused to refund her unless she returned the goods.

Fake Daily Mail article CBD
The fake Daily Mail article hooked Jennifer into this CBD gummies scam.

We discovered the company had actually sent Jennifer a link to a fake shipping tracking website which falsely showed that delivery to her address wasn't possible.

Jennifer allowed us to take a look at her internet history and we found the article she saw was actually a clever fake. It had been designed to look just like a Daily Mail article - and it linked back to an advert hosted on Jennifer's local news site, the Worthing Herald. We'd also received reports about the same company called 'Healthbodi' conning others with the same scheme.

The Worthing Herald said: 'Trust and accuracy are central to our publishing activities and we are extremely grateful to Which? for raising this.

'It is not possible to review all the ads appearing on our sites as, in common with many other publishers, each individual user may see entirely different ads to another and they are sourced in an automated way through advertising partners.

'On the rare occasions that a rogue advertisement reaches our sites as soon as we become aware of the issues we work with our partners to put measures in place to prevent repetition. In this instance, we have shared the details with [our advertising partner] Outbrain, to investigate.'

How the advertising works

The news outlets themselves don't curate the adverts that appear on their website - they simply sell the space. The ads that are featured are taken care of by external advertising companies who pay the website for space on its pages and then sell that advertising space to advertisers.

Most news and other popular websites host advertising panels to the side of, and below its articles. These are areas on the page where adverts appear. Advertising like this earns media outlets extra money, based on the number of people who view and click on each advert.

Some ads also appear in lists of recommended news articles which when casually browsing can be mistaken for genuine stories. This is intentional. The title of the adverts is designed to look like news story headlines to encourage readers to click on them.

The advert that linked Jennifer through to the fake Daily Mail page appeared on her local newspaper website.

Spotting an advert

When visiting a news site you'll probably see a mix of adverts. Some adverts are called sponsored or promoted posts and are designed to blend in with news articles and feature news-style headlines.

If you click on an advert it might take you through to a news article that impersonates a well-known media outlet - the Daily Mail and The Mirror are commonly cloned. Sometimes the articles aren't associated with big outlets but are little-known websites that are designed to look like they have authority on this topic and include success stories and lots of often false positive reviews.

Depending on what's being advertised, you could next be encouraged to hand over personal information to 'sign up' or 'find out more,' or tempted to buy something at a low price. This may be more appealing after just reading a persuasive, genuine-looking article about a service or product.

Ads can appear differently on mobile devices and make it harder to tell the difference between sponsored content and news stories when looking through a list of articles. These ads are also easily clicked on by mistake when scrolling on a mobile device.

Online advertising

Two of the biggest online advertising companies hosting ads online are Taboola and Outbrain. All of the suspect ads we spotted in our investigation were hosted by one of these two platforms. Most of the adverts do feature a 'sponsored' label but if the ad takes you to a fake news page it still gives what you see some credibility.

It took a matter of minutes to set up ads with both platforms and potentially reach huge audiences. Taboola promised to get our ad nine million views in a week for just £30 a day. Although neither company is responsible for any scams or harmful activity, Which? thinks they do more to protect consumers.

Taboola said it reviews all ads before they go live and has full-time content moderation and has 'very strict policies against fake news.' It removed the ads we reported that breached its guidelines.

Outbrain said it requires marketers to comply with strict publicly available advertiser guidelines. It said: 'Outbrain operates on the basis of our publicly available Notice and Takedown Policy, promptly investigating and addressing any issues. As soon as we determine an ad to be non-compliant with our guidelines or fraudulent in nature, it is rejected on sight, the advertiser's domain is blocked, and the marketer's accounts are disabled.'

Little is currently being done to tackle dodgy adverts online. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) launched a tool for consumers to report misleading or scam online ads. It shares reports with industry leaders and passes information onto those hosting ads. But it's then left to them to take action.

This issue is yet another demonstration of why Which? continues to campaign for better protections for consumers against harmful content online that leads to scams.


The full version of this article appeared in the March 2022 edition of Which? Money magazine.

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