Scammers using faces of famous South Africans in shady adverts

If you are an avid reader of online news in South Africa, it is likely that you have seen advertisements in articles that claim to have the answer to your financial troubles.

These ads use the faces of famous and wealthy South Africans along with provocative text to try and entice you into clicking on them.

Depending on the target demographic, the ads change their pitch. They may use headlines like “Learn why the ANC tried to bury it”, suggesting that the ANC tried to block a scheme that will make poor people rich.

Other ads will promise you financial freedom, claim to reveal “one trick” that a celebrity uses to make lots of money, or sell you the story of a real-life Robin Hood who built a wealth-creating system for the lower class.

Advertising a scam using Mark Shuttleworth’s face

MyBroadband was recently contacted by a reader who tried for weeks to report one of these ads to Google which they saw on a prominent South African news website. It also appeared on embedded YouTube videos.

The ad in question used the likeness of Mark Shuttleworth to promote various books and a scheme that claims it can make you a millionaire with software that trades automatically on financial markets.

Google responded within four days of the initial report with a follow-up question: “Please clarify whether you are requesting removal of these URLs from Google’s search results, or whether you are requesting removal of a Google search ad.”

The person reporting the advertisement explained once again that it was neither a search result nor a Google search ad, but a third-party ad appearing on South African news websites.

More than a week later, Google responded with yet another request for clarification:

“After reviewing your submission, we weren’t able to fully understand your request. If you send us more details to clarify your concerns, we will investigate further.”

The person trying to report the advertisement once again tried to explain that someone was using Google Ads to advertise shady financial services using fraudulent endorsements.

Another four days later, Google provided the following response:

“Upon recent review of your complaint, we were unable to locate the advertisements in question.”

While this advertisement appeared on a South African news website in 2020, it has been a problem for at least two years.

Shuttleworth issued a statement in 2018 about not only this exact issue, but the very same product that was fraudulently claiming his endorsement.

Trevor Noah, Cyril Ramaphosa, Naas Botha, and Patrice Motsepe

Examples of Google ads using President Cyril Ramaphosa’s name

Mark Shuttleworth is not the only famous South African whose endorsement has been falsified to advertise shady investment products.

Photos of Trevor Noah, Cyril Ramaphosa, Patrice Motsepe, Naas Botha, and Pravin Gordhan are used to promote various get-rich-quick scams.

MyBroadband visited a handful of large South African websites that rely on Google Ads for their income and found that, on 31 August, there were several displaying advertisements for dodgy financial services.

In each case, the pattern was the same: an advertisement would link to a page styled to look like a legitimate news article.

This false article would then claim that a famous and wealthy South African endorsed a specific Bitcoin-based investment scheme. For a “small” initial investment of “around R3,500”, it claims, the scheme will turn you into a multi-millionaire.

The misleading article includes a falsified tweet purporting to be from President Cyril Ramaphosa stating that this Bitcoin-based service “is showing great promise and has my full endorsement as a wealth system.”

A brief analysis of the false articles shows that they are often hosted on Google’s own Blogspot platform.

The page hosting the misleading article contains a completely unrelated blog post and then pulls in the article using an <iframe> tag.

Google’s response

MyBroadband asked Google for comment and a spokesperson for the company said that it removed 2.7 billion bad ads in 2019, which is more than 5,000 bad ads taken down every minute.

“Because we want the ads people see on Google to be useful and relevant, we take immediate action to prevent fake and inappropriate ads. We have a tool where anyone can report these ads and these complaints are reviewed by our team.”

Now read: Google clamps down on ads for dodgy tracking technology

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