Defining what's too good to be true

By Stuart Fuller



Social Media users have become used to seeing sponsored ads on their timelines in the past year as advertisers use your social data for targeting the products and services that your digital footprint has revealed.  There is nothing new with targeted advertising online but last week I saw for myself evidence that not all of these advertisers are legitimate.  I'd been looking at upgrading my wardrobe for winter, considering investing in a Canada Goose jacket.  Unsurprisingly, when I next went into Facebook I saw an ad appear in my timeline for a website offering the high-end jackets at eye-rubbing discounts.

Ten years in this industry has taught me to be naturally suspicious by any online bargains.  I drive my friends and family to distraction at times by questioning any online bargains they find, looking for clues that it may not be a bargain at all but rather a scam.  At best items bought at significant discount turn out to be inferior and even dangerous, at worst the products never arrive.  So when I saw an ad for the jackets at prices discounted by over 75% I was immediately suspicious.  But on the other hand I assumed that the ad must be genuine - after all it was a sponsored ad meaning it had surely gone through a verification process by Facebook before it was allowed to start appearing on my timeline.

Back in June, an operation carried out by a joint task force under the banner of Operation Jasper took down thousands of Facebook listings and seized dangerous goods in a crackdown on social media counterfeiting and piracy.  National Trading Standards said the operation was the largest of its kind ever seen in the United Kingdom to combat piracy on social media, taking down over 4,000 Facebook listings.

Facebook terms and conditions are hardly ambiguous with regard to ads such as the one before my eyes. "Ads must not contain false, misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive claims or content."  The small print goes onto say "Ads must not contain or promote illegal products or services. Ads must not violate the rights of any third parties." By offering known counterfeit goods for sale, the advertiser is both selling illegal products and violating the trademark and intellectual property rights of Canada Goose.  However, unless the trademark owner files a complaint then the ad could potentially continue to be displayed. "Only the trademark owner or their authorized representative may report a suspected infringement. If you believe that something on Facebook infringes someone else’s trademark rights, you may want to let the rights owner know."

Last November a study was released that recorded out of a sample of 1,067 adverts displayed on Facebook across multiple accounts, 180 of which were for high-end and luxury fashion goods.  43 of these linked through to websites selling suspected counterfeit goods.  The sales adage of fish where the big fish are fits perfectly for cyber criminals to target social media platforms such as Facebook for their victims.

Facebook aren't alone in facing issues with regard to the advertising of counterfeit goods but fraudsters are naturally drawn to it because of the sheer scale and reach of the user base, with over one billion active users.  It's hard to know what system they can put in place that to verify each and every advert is offering genuine products.  The intended audience need to be part of the solution than the problem.  If the fraudsters do not get a return on their investment from hoodwinked buyers then they will move on to the next scam.

So what are the tell-tale signs that should set social media users alarm bells ringing? In the case of the advert for the Canada Goose jackets there are five clear signs that all is not as it seems.

1. A simple www.WHO.IS search on the domain name in question revealed it was only registered a few day before the ad had been served.
2. The domain name is registered to an individual rather from an organisation and located in a country different from where the company says they are based on the website.
3. The language and grammar on the ad itself is poor - "All kinds of cheap coat" and Coat top fashion brands".
4. The words in the terms and conditions have been copied directly from a reputable website, in this case as they've left references to them in the wording.  The Hut have no link to this organisation.
5. The website claims it has an SSL certificate meaning that any data sent between a user and the server will be encrypted.  It doesn't.  Using a website such as you can check any website for their level of encryption.  In this instance there is none.

Finally, but most telling is the fact that Canada Goose jackets do not sell for the prices advertised.  It is simply too good to be true! It is a premium product, made with premium materials and thus sold with a premium price tag.  The brand, like so many other luxury and high-end ones does highlight the issue of counterfeits on their website, with a clear statement that "You will never see current Canada Goose products discounted by any authorized retailer" and providing a URL checker to determine if a website is a genuine reseller or not.

The fight against counterfeiting has never been as difficult as today as this case demonstrates.  Using social data and targeted adverts on social media platforms means the cyber criminals can reach almost qualified customers easier than before.  By pausing before we jump onto websites that offer these crazy deals and taking some small, sensible steps we can all be part of the solution rather than fuelling the problem of counterfeiting.