Do Social Media networks put profit before public safety?

By Stuart Fuller

Over the last few weeks I have seen a huge increase in the number of sponsored or promoted ads that are appearing on my Social Media timelines.  Most are for genuine products but it has become noticeable that some are for luxury-branded items at eye-catching prices.  The beauty of social media advertising is that you can specifically target the audience based on the huge amounts of demographic and social data they own for each user.  With over a billion active users on Facebook, each of whom will have had to complete a user profile, you can see why advertising revenues continue to rise, predicted to reach over $14bn by the end of 2015, up from just $4.3bn three years ago.

However, it has long been known that cyber criminals use the same tactics as brand holders in trying to drive traffic and ultimately revenues.  So just as brand holders use Social Media networks to target potential customers, so do miscreants.  And the concern here is the ease by which anyone can create a campaign that infringes intellectual property.

The adverts I have seen as “promoted” tweets in the last few days have been for an Italian luxury clothing brand, with revenues in excess of €360 million.  I’m not alone so it seems.  A group of my friends, all with the same profile, interests and demographics have also seen these ads, which despite using different images, descriptions and URLs, drive you to a website that is made to look identical to the official one.  Of course it isn’t.

The domain names used in the promoted campaigns via Social Media all share the same characteristics.  They are all registered through low-cost domain name registrars, rather than the corporate registrars that major brands use.  They are all registered in the last few days.  They all have fictitious addresses.  But it matters not one bit to the Social Media companies. 

It takes a matter of minutes to set up a Social Media campaign.  All you need is an account and a credit card to pay for the advertising.  That’s it.  The whole process takes around 2 minutes.  Yes, you need to confirm that you have read the terms and conditions, which does state that you cannot infringe on the intellectual property.  Despite using my own inside knowledge to determine that these promoted ads are selling counterfeit items from websites that clearly infringe on someone else’s Intellectual Property, I cannot take any action against the advertisers.  Twitter, for instance, will only accept a copyright complaint from the copyright holder or their authorised agent.  So if they are not aware of the issue, ads will continue to be served until they are or the budget set by the cyber criminals runs out.