Lose weight without changing a thing! It’s a fantasy crafted and perpetuated by direct marketing minds in the weight loss and diet pill industry. It’s also a tactic used by online scammers to pedal bogus products that often have hidden recurring fees.
Today, TrustInAds.org, an industry organization dedicated to “keeping people safe from bad online ads” whose members include AOL, Google, Facebook and Twitter, released a trend alert on weight loss scams to alert consumers to the problems with many ads in this category.
According to the report, TrustInAds.org members have rejected or removed over 2.5 million weight loss-related ads from their systems in the past 18 months
Yet, despite the report and stated increase in vigilance by members, it’s still fairly easy to find sketchy weight loss ads — even ads flagged as having been removed in the report itself — underscoring evolving tactics by scammers and perhaps the need for even stricter ad filters and review processes.
The “4 Foods to never eat” shown below was found quickly this morning even though a variation of it is shown in the report as an example of a misleading ad that had been taken down. (Spoiler alert: bananas are not one of the foods you shouldn’t be eating.) The ad here was served through Google.
In the report consumers are warned about ads with pitches like “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days”. Yet, here is a similar ad on a Google search for “diet pills” found earlier today from DietPillUniverse.com promising “Lose 10 Pounds In 7 Days Guaranteed”.
A search on Yahoo, which has its search ads served through Microsoft’s Bing Ads platform (not a TrustInAds.org member), for “diet pills” yielded three consecutive ads from TrustedWeightLossPills3(4 and 5).com that skirt trademark violations by using a “0″ instead of an “O” in “0z”. To top it off, the ads lead with “Avoid Scammer”.
Fighting bad ads is an uphill battle that will likely never be entirely won. Per the report, “sophisticated scammers are always attempting to circumvent companies’ automated filters and sometimes a small number of these ads do end up on the web. The issue – as a whole – is incredibly nuanced and scammers frequently find new ways to avoid detection by companies and law enforcement, as well as working around the FTC guidelines. This makes it extremely difficult for online advertising platforms to identify scam ads among the billions of legitimate ads served every year.”
And yes, Google, in particular, has a huge number of ads passing through its automated systems every day which makes detection tougher. Still, it’s hard to reconcile the message that bad ads are being fought to the best of their ability when it’s so easy to spot examples on the day this kind of report is released.
Asked for comment after providing screenshots of the first two examples above, a Google spokesperson said, “We are supportive of efforts to raise awareness of these types of scams, many of which come from very sophisticated scammers. We have systems in place to detect these sorts of bad actors, and if we find an ad that violates our policies we’ll take the appropriate actions as quickly as possible.”
It should also be noted that it can be tougher to seek out these kinds of ads on Facebook and Twitter due to the ad targeting methods used on those platforms. However, no sketchy weight loss ads were spotted on either platform via keyword searches or other audience targeting or retargeting methods.
There are valid questions about whether Facebook and Twitter are doing more to keep spam out, if scammers are able to sneak through Google and Bing Ads more easily because their ad systems are more nuanced, or if it’s a volume thing in which we really are just seeing a tiny sliver of all that Google and Bing Ads have managed to block. What we do know is bad actors will go wherever money is.
This is the second report issued by the group; the first was on tech support scams, which has its fare share of bad actors.