UK consumers are still being shown misleading and potentially fraudulent investment adverts on Facebook and Instagram that put them at risk, Which? research has found, showing why the Online Safety Bill is desperately needed to crack down on paid-for scam advertising.
Working with Demos Consulting, Which? found many risky investment adverts on the two Meta platforms. The research used human and automated analysis to find the adverts at scale on Meta’s ad library, a publicly available tool which shows, for a given country, adverts visible to users of Facebook and Instagram. It involved searching for risk factors such as the ad not including a risk warning or promising sensational, life-changing returns.
These red flags could mean consumers are led into making poor and risky investment choices or in the worst cases becoming fraud victims – who lose more than £45,000 on average to ‘clone’ firm investment scams according to Action Fraud.
One collection of adverts highlighted how repeat offenders persistently post dodgy adverts on Facebook and Instagram. The adverts focused on a piece of software called ‘Tesler’ and there were multiple indications that they were probably scams.
Twenty adverts for Tesler identified by the research each raised eight separate serious risk flags. Which? also found similar adverts were scattered throughout the data it analysed. The Financial Conduct Authority has previously issued a warning about a scam investment company using the brand name ‘Tesler’ and impersonating a regulated trading company based in the UK. While Which? cannot be certain these adverts are from the same group, it was also unable to find any evidence of a real, registered company called ‘Tesler Investments’.
The use of the name ‘Tesler’, with its similarities to automotive brand ‘Tesla’, and other language used may be reinforcing this potentially misleading reference to attempt to draw in victims.
When a Which? researcher clicked on a Tesler ad, they were prompted to enter their contact details. Within less than an hour, they were called by a representative and pressured to set up a trading account amid claims that its “sophisticated algorithm…plays the trade with an 87% success rate”. Together, these factors, and others, suggest that these Tesler adverts are likely to be a scam.
Which? collected 39 unique ads mentioning Tesler and additional searches showed that adverts for Tesler could still be found on Meta on 2 December 2022.
Which?’s initial snapshot human analysis of 1,064 adverts found 484 adverts on the Meta platform that were investment related, about half of which were for investment products and the rest offering investment-related services like tips, training and advice.
The most common investment products advertised in Which?’s sample were property related, one in four (25%), while the second most common were for cryptoassets, one in five (22%) – both cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens. In most cases, both of these products will be unregulated. One in 10 (12%) investment products advertised were unclear – they offered high returns without clarifying how those returns would be obtained.
Which? also found a small number of adverts for binary options, a form of trading banned in the UK in 2019. The FCA has previously warned that any firm offering binary options services is probably unauthorised or a scam.
The consumer champion’s manual analysis identified 89 adverts with three or more red flags, such as a no risk warning or a claim that returns are guaranteed, amongst others, of which 23 had five or more red flags. Potentially misleading adverts often promised massive, risk-free and speedy returns, playing on consumers’ fears of missing out on opportunities.
Separately, Which? and Demos Consulting also trained algorithms to search for risky adverts, using four specific risk factors, among a sample of 6,357 adverts and were able to pinpoint 186 with risk flags, with an accuracy rate of 77 to 91 per cent.
Which? believes this demonstrates how online platforms could be better deploying their sophisticated technology to create algorithms that detect and remove harmful adverts at scale. However, platforms would still need human intervention to review a proportion of those adverts flagged based on a risk framework. Algorithms are not perfect so human review and due diligence are needed too.
Meta platforms are not alone in facing issues with misleading and fraudulent online advertising. Which? investigated Meta because it is more transparent than other online platforms about the advertising present on its platforms, having taken steps to publish all adverts displayed on Meta platforms. Meta and other platforms should look to increase and improve transparency further, so that the safety and quality of adverts can be independently scrutinised.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“It is extremely worrying that misleading and potentially fraudulent investment adverts are still being shown to Facebook and Instagram users, putting consumers at risk of immense financial and emotional harm.
“If a consumer group and another charity can design algorithms and uncover these adverts then tech giants should be able to create effective systems to do the same job on a bigger scale.
“The government must take a crucial step in the fight against fraud by ensuring the Online Safety Bill is passed into law without further delays. Otherwise we could be waiting even longer for alternative action to tackle online fraud infiltrating the world’s biggest search engines and social media sites.
“The government’s Online Advertising Programme should also build on the Online Safety Bill to move from the current reactive takedown approach to one that prevents scammers entering the system in the first place. It should force online platforms and other players in the advertising ecosystem to protect consumers from fraudulent and misleading adverts.”
Notes to editors
‘Toward a future without fraud’ – a new report by Which? and Demos Consulting will be available at the following link from 00:01 on Tuesday 6th December: here
Which?’s research took place between October 2021 and August 2022. It involved various pieces of snapshot analysis rather than being continuous.
Which? and its supporters have been campaigning for the Online Safety Bill to include provisions to tackle online fraud: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/
The sale and display of advertising is a major driver of revenue for Meta – company reports suggest a revenue of over $28 billion from advertising in the second quarter of 2022.
Meta’s ad library is a publicly available tool which shows, for a given country, adverts visible to users of Facebook and Instagram. The adverts have been approved by Meta to be displayed on its platforms. Social and political adverts stay up on Meta for transparency but Which? found, for other ads, that the most concerning content is sometimes removed relatively quickly but it is unclear whether this is by Meta or the advertisers themselves. As a result, problematic content often vanishes before it can be reviewed, and regular monitoring is needed to judge the true scale of the problem.
Which? suspects the scale of misleading and fraudulent adverts could actually be much higher online, including on Facebook and Instagram. This was only a snapshot investigation and Which? only looked at investment adverts. However there are many other types of scams that are also huge on Meta and other platforms – such as fake products and online shopping scams. See previous research here and here.
Previous research by Which? found that scammers make large amounts of money in short periods of time and include the likelihood that their advert will be taken down in their business model.
The FCA warns that as the sale of binary options is now banned, any firm offering binary options services is probably unauthorised or a scam.
Further details on ‘Tesler’ adverts
One advert linked to a Google-generated website, which uses the branding of the established investment magazine Forbes, and appears to endorse the product. When Which? approached Forbes, it confirmed it had never endorsed or had any connection with Tesler.
These adverts were posted by 28 different pages, some of which had been given names entirely unrelated to investing, such as ‘ABC News GB’, ‘Shane Young MMA’ and ‘Butterfly Planet’.
Which? collected 39 unique advertisements mentioning Tesler between 16th November 2021 and 24th Mar 2022. Additional searches showed that adverts for Tesler could still be found on Meta on 2 December 2022.
The variety of pages posting these advertisements, such as a ‘Cooking’ page on Facebook, and the period and frequency with which they are posted, suggest a coordinated campaign to disseminate risky adverts, potentially attempting to reach a wider audience through tapping into topics which people are already interested in, such as food or news.
Rights of reply
“We removed a number of the ads brought to our attention for breaking our rules, many of which had already been disabled prior to being contacted by Which?. Promoting financial scams is against our policies and we’re dedicating significant resources to tackling this industry-wide issue on and off our platforms. We recently started rolling out a new process that requires financial services advertisers targeting users in the UK to be authorised by the FCA.” A Meta spokesperson
Meta also told Which? that it does not allow fraudulent activity on its platforms and that it works closely with law enforcement to support investigations and keep scammers off its platforms.
It added that enforcement can never be perfect, as both machines and human reviewers make mistakes. It isn’t able to detect all possible policy violations and just because an ad is running on Facebook doesn’t necessarily make it compliant with its policies. Learn more about its ad review process here.
Which? was unable to find contact details for Tesler Investments.
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