Bad Ads Trend Alert: Shining a Light on Tech Support Advertising Scams. May TrustInAds.org. Keeping people safe from bad online ads

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1 Bad Ads Trend Alert: Shining a Light on Tech Support Advertising Scams May 2014 TrustInAds.org Keeping people safe from bad online ads

2 OVERVIEW Today, even the most tech savvy individuals can find themselves looking for information or technical ( tech ) support for a specific desktop or mobile application. For those and others who are less comfortable with tackling a tech support problem on their own, turning to the Internet in search of help is often the first step in solving a specific issue. In addition to the vast amounts of try this and do it yourself information that can be found on websites, online forums, and social media sites, many legitimate companies advertise services to those needing tech support for just about any desktop, web or mobile application you can imagine through ads found in search engine results, across the web or on social media platforms. These companies can and do provide valuable support services - particularly for those who aren t as familiar with the complexities of today s computers, smartphones and their most popular applications. However, hidden amongst the many legitimate online ads offering these services are some ads from bad actors who lure unsuspecting users to compromise their accounts, install malware on their computers or steal their identities. And these bad actors, often highly sophisticated, go to great lengths to hide under the radar from the manual reviews and automated filtering technologies used to catch fraudulent ads in an attempt to profit from their victims. Tech support scams, in general, have received previous attention, both in recent news reports and through previous work by the Federal Trade Commission to combat scammers. While limited in volume and scope, the tech support advertising scams the TrustInAds.org member companies uncovered not only present a real problem for victims, but also for advertising platforms, publishers and the legitimate advertisers whose services may be questioned or dismissed as a result. This report provides examples of these tech support ad scams and how the bad actors behind them work to infiltrate a person s computer. It also gives an overview of the actions taken by Google and Facebook against these bad actors, plus tips on how to stay safe for those who are seeking legitimate tech support services online. HOW TECH SUPPORT SCAMS WORK For Facebook and Google, pinpointing bad ads is exceptionally difficult because bad ads often closely resemble policy compliant ads. In fact, many of the ads that led people to scams contained no information that raised any flags through manual reviews or automated filtering systems. Example of Tech Support Scam Ad on Google Fig. 1 TrustInAds.org 2

3 Examples of Tech Support Scam Ads on Facebook Fig. 2 In addition to examining the content in every ad that runs on their platforms to ensure compliance with their advertising policies, Facebook and Google also inspect the landing pages where - when clicked - the ads send the user. In many of these cases, the landing pages did not raise any immediate red flags or suspicions. Examples of Landing Pages Where Users are Sent After Click an Ad Fig. 3 TrustInAds.org 3

4 Fig. 3 (cont.) On Google, these ads would generate in results for users searching for general and specific hardware, software and application tech support. Below are examples of searches where some of these ads would appear next to the search results: Gmail tech support Facebook tech support AOL Mail tech support As you can see from the examples (Figs. 1 and 2), these ads in particular contain very little information and remain vague in nature by not clearly identifying the company for which the ads are advertising, and in the Google ads (Fig. 1), a 1-(800) number (blurred out) is prominently displayed within the content of the ad. In addition, some sites showed a number of certifications, seals, and other brand-based images that falsely suggested legitimacy or even affiliation with the brand itself. Clicking on the ad sent the user to a website landing page which also displays the same 1-(800) number to, again, encourage users to call the support line. The Facebook ads also sent users to landing pages where they were encouraged to call a 1-(800) number. TrustInAds.org 4

5 This type of encouraged action on an ad certainly isn t out of the ordinary, nor did it seem to violate any ads policies. However, after Google and Facebook began to receive user complaints (and complaints from legitimate tech support service providers), they took a closer look at these ads and related advertiser accounts. What Google and Facebook both uncovered was that, through the ads and landing pages, these scam advertisers were often presenting themselves as official representatives of companies of the products for which the users were needing tech support, and having them download and install special software as the initial step to solving the problem. The downloaded program - unbeknownst to the user - contained malicious software ( malware ) with viruses, spyware, adware, keystroke loggers and other harmful applications. These malicious programs left virtually every piece of information on a computer vulnerable to theft, including documents, website login IDs and passwords, and other sensitive files that could be used to steal the user s identity. And in a number of cases, the scam advertiser would hold the user's computer hostage, threatening to delete or steal personal information in exchange for payment of several hundred dollars worth of "support fees." To the benefit of scammers, the interaction over the phone took the scam offline and made it more difficult for Google and Facebook to detect through the normal enforcement mechanisms each company deploys to root out bad ads and advertisers from their platforms. IDENTIFYING THE SCAMMERS AND TAKING ACTION Everyday, Facebook and Google review millions of ads using both automated and manual methods. To attack this problem specifically, policy enforcement teams used information collected from user complaints to identify problem ads and advertiser accounts and cross-referenced them against those with similar identifiable attributes across all tech support ads and advertisers. With some ads, Google even called the 1-(800) numbers and posed as users with a tech support issue to look for clues of any scams or fraudulent behavior. From the unique characteristics identified in these ads and advertiser accounts, Google and Facebook created automatable signals to build into their enforcement algorithms, and through machine learning, each system then taught itself to flag future ads with similar patterns and attributes. In addition, the companies continue to manually review ads and accounts to catch any ad or account that may slip through the automated filters. Since this review process began, Google and Facebook combined have removed over 4,000 suspicious advertiser accounts linked to more than 2,400 tech support websites. And while these TrustInAds.org 5

6 actions have curbed a significant amount of scams related to tech support services, the bad actors associated with these scams continue to look for ways to bypass the automated filtering and manual review processes so they can continue to serve bad ads to unsuspecting users. HOW TO REMAIN SAFE It is important to note that tech support scams that target consumers are not limited to bad ads seen on Facebook, Google and others. Phishing and telemarketing-type scams, that have been previously reported by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, still pose a threat to consumers. Also, there are many reputable tech support service providers that advertise online. A user needing help shouldn t be wary of seeking support through an online ad. However, as with any online or offline activity, it is important to be vigilant in looking for signs you are being scammed. Have a clear understanding from which provider you are soliciting tech support. Checking the website of the product s provider, or calling the provider directly, should always be the first step to solving your issue. However, some may choose to seek support from a third-party provider. Be sure you know from who you are seeking support. Some of these scam companies earn the trust of the user by posing as official representatives of the product for which you are calling. If they do not fully disclose that they are an independent, third party provider, you should be suspicious. Never give your password over the phone. No legitimate company will ever ask you to provide your password to your account over the phone. Be suspicious when asked to download software. At no point should you be required to download a piece of software from a third-party tech support provider in order to solve your issue. Keep your operating system and antivirus software up to date. Users should always make sure they are running updated security/antivirus software on their computers that can detect problems as soon as they appear. Providers of popular antivirus and security software products include Bitdefender, McAfee and Symantec. Users should also make sure their web browser and operating system (Windows, OS X, Linux, etc.) are also up to date. If you become suspicious of an ad or are victimized by a scam, REPORT IT! One of the best ways we can defend users from harmful scams and bad ads is through user feedback. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have simple ways to alert them of potential scams and bad ads. Simply visit to learn how. TrustInAds.org 6

7 In addition: If you paid for any of these suspicious services using a credit card, immediately notify your credit card company to halt the charges and monitor your statements for any additional unauthorized charges that may appear. If you believe your personal financial information has been compromised, visit the FTC s identity theft website. Users should also file a complaint with FTC by visiting TrustInAds.org 7

8 ABOUT TRUSTINADS.ORG Founded by AOL, Facebook, Google and Twitter, TrustInAds.org comprises a group of Internet industry leaders that have come together to work toward a common goal: Protect people from malicious online advertisements and deceptive practices. With this effort, TrustInAds.org and its member companies are: Bringing awareness to consumers about online ad-related scams and deceptive activities; collaborating to identify trends in deceptive ads and sharing best practices; and sharing our knowledge with policymakers and consumer advocates around the country. To learn more, visit Follow us on Facebook and Google+. TrustInAds.org 8

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