Part of our series, Mining for Silver on Facebook
Millions of dollars worth of retirement-themed ads from pages like “Retired Republicans” and “Fox News Insiders” ran on Facebook throughout the past two years. The ads were microtargeted to conservative seniors. They seemly were designed to scare users into “protecting” their future by purchasing precious metals. Some asked, “Is Your Retirement Protected from the Deep State?”
In the end, some seniors were tricked out of much of their retirement savings—and Facebook showed ads supporting the scheme at least 45 million times.
Many of the ads led people to a company called Metals.com, which sells gold and silver coins at high markups, and which former business associates described to Quartz as a boiler-room-style operation. The ads broke Facebook’s rules, Facebook now says. But they nevertheless ran for at least 21 months.
Facebook’s ad targeting system allows big, global companies to find their ideal customers with extraordinary specificity, down to their hobbies and marital status. It has made Facebook billions of dollars in revenue, but the company has had trouble controlling what it has unleashed, letting ads that are deceptive or discriminatory flourish on the platform.
“Platforms like Google and Facebook make it easier and cheaper to target customers, but they also make it easier and cheaper to scam those customers,” wrote University of New Hampshire law professor Roger Allan Ford in a paper called “Data Scams.”
At least one customer lost half of his life savings after he agreed to Metals.com’s pitch.
Metals.com is under investigation in several states for fraud and related charges, but the full breadth of its substantial, but convoluted, entanglement with Facebook has never been reported. The ads cannily harnessed Facebook’s ad-targeting system to funnel customers to Metals.com while skirting the platform’s anemic enforcement of its own rules.
“These kinds of deceptive ads have no place on Facebook,” the company’s director of product management Rob Leathern told Quartz in a statement. “Over the past year we have removed pages and their associated ad accounts, but the people behind these ads continue to intentionally break our rules,” he said. A Metals.com spokesman, who said his name was David Rubenstein, said that Metals.com didn’t run any Facebook ads itself, but rather bought leads from third-party companies.
Quartz has not been able to determine who ultimately paid for the ads. The web of entities listed as paying for them include an anonymous Wyoming corporation and numerous entities that don’t appear to exist. Despite Facebook’s promises to keep a closer eye on its platform, it still has been possible to run a multimillion dollar ad campaign that flagrantly violates Facebook’s rules without being detected and stopped.
Facebook’s ad dashboard makes it easy to target anyone
Facebook’s ad-targeting dashboard drives much of Facebook’s profits—the company posted $17.4 billion in advertising revenue last quarter. While contextual ads, such as those in Google search results, are targeted mainly on what you’re looking at, Facebook’s ads are targeted based on you being … you.
Between the data users give Facebook and the data it hoovers up from trackers embedded on many of the websites you visit (including Quartz), Facebook slices and dices its users into a plethora of “segments” it offers up to advertisers. Those include segments based on basic characteristics like age and gender, more intrusive traits like political leaning and the wealth of your neighborhood, and behaviors like whether you’ve visited the advertiser’s website.
Facebook frequently points out that it doesn’t sell your data. Instead, the company lets advertisers find their ideal potential customer by choosing segments, then Facebook shows the advertiser’s ad to the users who match those segments.
Whoever bought the ads that funneled people to Metals.com took full advantage of Facebook’s tools. First, they limited the ads so that they’d be shown only to Americans over 59 years old—because, a former salesperson for the company said, those are the people with money that can be easily moved out of retirement accounts and who have more reason to be afraid of an economic downturn. Then the ad buyer asked Facebook to show the ads to users in a handful of political segments: those who had been categorized as “conservative” or “very conservative,” and those interested in Donald Trump, the Republican party or, conservative media personalities like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin. That’s according to the “Why am I seeing this?” explanations given by Facebook to people who saw the ads and which were reviewed by Quartz.
“Keeping scams hidden has often been a goal of scammers, but doing so can run counter to the need to attract victims. Targeting lets a scammer have it both ways: making the scam known to potential victims while keeping it hidden from others,” Ford, the University of New Hampshire professor, wrote in his paper. “This isn’t new—a scammer who pitches retirees on an investment scheme would be dumb to pitch those who don’t fit the profile—but online targeting automates this filtering process and lets it happen at scale.”
[If you or someone you know lost money in a gold or silver scheme, here’s how to get help. If you have tips or information that might help us cover this story, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach us more securely.]
In March 2018, the National Fair Housing Alliance sued Facebook for allegedly allowing discrimination in housing ads. In March of this year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development sued, too; in July, New York state started a investigation. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) settled a lawsuit against Facebook after saying the platform had enabled age and gender discrimination when it let employers hide jobs ads from older people or from women. (Quartz reporters are represented by the NewsGuild, which is a part of the CWA.)
Targeting job ads by gender and age can lead to discrimination. Facebook settled several of the suits and agreed to forbid job advertisers, and those advertising credit and housing, from using those targeting options. In September, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that some of the advertisers named by the ACLU and CWA had broken civil-rights law when those advertisers ran their Facebook ads.
Earlier this month, Quartz exposed extensive use of a Facebook targeting option called “Lookalike Audiences” that has been used by members of the banking industry and which a lawsuit alleges could have violated anti-discrimination laws.
How Facebook’s algorithm can find vulnerable seniors on its own
Facebook’s powerful, proprietary tools reach audiences in ways that would be impossible in any other medium.
All on its own, in a process called “optimization,” according to academic research, Facebook’s advertising system dug through the social network’s trove of personal data to find seniors who were most likely to click each ad, such as the one that said “A newly-liberal majority Congress cares more about chaos than your security! A Republican Insider reveals the truth about the ‘DEEP STATE.’”
Even though the ads were targeted to conservative seniors, not everyone within that potential audience had equal odds of seeing the ads. “Facebook attempts to identify the users within an advertiser’s selected audience who they believe would find the ad most useful” and more likely to be clicked, according to an academic paper from earlier this year. Then, Facebook steers the ad to those users. The paper found that this “optimization,” could lead to gender and racial discrimination.
“Facebook has enough data that it probably knows who the users who are most likely to click on these sort of scammy things are,” said Alan Mislove, a computer science professor at Northeastern University and one of the authors of the paper. “You could imagine that they would become very good at predicting which users would click on these ads and steer the ads that way.”
Mislove cautions that Facebook’s optimization system is so opaque that it is impossible to measure exactly what’s happening from the outside, but, he said, it’s likely that Facebook was “finding vulnerable users who are quote-unquote relevant to the ad” in order to direct the ads to them.
What happened after they clicked
For example, if one of these users clicked on the 2018 ad about a “free gold webinar” from “Fox News Insider Reports,” they’d be taken to foxinsiders.com.co—an example of what’s called a “squeeze page.” The web page urged them to “Call NOW” while a countdown timer created a false sense of urgency, over a line that read “Offer Only Valid For Next 15 Minutes.”
The squeeze page website contained an image whose digital metadata said the image’s author was “Chase Metals”—the prior name of Metals.com’s parent company. The page gave the advertiser two possible ways to identify the potential customer. Visitors could call the number listed prominently on the site, which is now disconnected.
But even if they didn’t call the number, a Facebook “pixel” tracking system would record their visit to the squeeze page, guaranteeing that they’d see more ads from the web of Facebook pages linked to Metals.com. That’s according to Quartz’s review of the “Why am I seeing this?” explanation for the ads.
A Fox News spokesperson said there was no connection between the ads and Fox News, and that the use of the channel’s name was unauthorized.
Ads from this September read “Sign This Petition To Broadcast OAN Publicly!” referring to the right-wing One America News Network, and featured a picture of Donald Trump Jr. with OAN anchor Chanel Rion. (OAN said it had no affiliation with Metals.com or with the ads.) The ad’s supposed petition was actually a “lead generation” form, part of Facebook’s advertising toolbox, which is pre-filled by Facebook with the potential customer’s contact information—by filling it out, users are sending information to the ad buyer without ever leaving Facebook’s site.
Rubenstein, the Metals.com’s spokesman, said that the company bought leads from third-parties, rather than running ads itself. Quartz was not able to independently confirm that a “David Rubenstein” works for the company.
Using Fox News and government agencies as cover
Beyond those falsely claiming an affiliation with Fox News, with names like “Fox News Viewers” or “Fox News Insider Reports,” other ads came from Facebook pages with names that sounded like government agencies, like the “US Retirement Bureau” and “Republican House Committee.”
Here are two examples of ads from those Facebook pages warning about an impending “account freeze”.
During the run-up to the 2018 US midterm elections, a new partisan theme emerged in the ads: they came from pages named to sound like Republican grassroots organizations, like “Retired Republicans” or “Make America Great Again—Republican.”
The ads’ focus was on politics to such a degree that Facebook considered most of them to be political ads, similar to those from politicians or interest groups, and included them in its archive of political advertisements.
After Democrats gained control of the US House of Representatives in January 2019, other seniors saw the “Proud To Be A Deplorable” Facebook page’s ads that warned “A newly-liberal majority Congress cares more about chaos than your security!”
Facebook approved every one of these ads.
Skirting Facebook’s rules
A Facebook spokesperson said that the ads violated a rule against ads “using deceptive or misleading practices, including those meant to scam people out of money or personal information.”
The ads with various links to Metals.com remained on the site for 21 months, and some were still running the week before Quartz posted this story online.
Facebook’s advertising rules also seem to forbid “Is Your Retirement Protected from the Deep State?” style of fear-mongering. Under a section titled “Controversial Content,” Facebook bans ads that “contain content that exploits controversial political or social issues for commercial purposes.” When asked, a Facebook spokesman didn’t address a specific question about whether Facebook considers the ads to have violated that rule.
Ford suggests giving companies like Facebook “incentives to structure their platforms to make it easier to detect and prevent scams.” He says they could use machine-learning to detect new variations on scams or scrutinize advertisers who are new or who target vulnerable groups.
Facebook didn’t answer a question from Quartz about whether it has considered implementing a higher standard of review for ads with targeting choices that aim at vulnerable populations, such as the elderly. Facebook also didn’t respond to a specific question about why the ads themselves were approved, given that Facebook now says they broke the rules.
Facebook’s “paid for by” disclaimer is easy to fake. Last year, Facebook allowed oil-industry lobbyists to run ads under the name of nonexistent front groups. Facebook also sold ads “paid for by Mike Pence” even though they had been purchased by a Vice reporter. This month, Facebook began requesting political ad buyers’ Federal Election Commission or Internal Revenue Service identification numbers.
It’s unclear who actually paid for the ads that connected callers to the Metals.com salespeople.
“We just purchase leads on an invoice basis from third-party agencies and we don’t run the third-party agencies,” Rubenstein said. “They run lead generation campaigns and we don’t run their businesses for them.”
Metals.com didn’t provide the names of those third-party agencies when asked.
The massive scale of the Facebook operation
According to Facebook’s political ads archive, over at least 18 months the company showed the ads at least 45,330,000 times to seniors.
Facebook claims to have “automated detection techniques” that use machine learning to stop scams, along with “a dedicated set of trained reviewers focused on taking down scams.” In May 2018, it boasted of a plan to hire thousands more content moderators, many of whom would be dedicated to the safety of its political ads.
“The people behind these violating ads are constantly adapting to get around our systems, which is why we continue to improve,” a Facebook spokesperson told Quartz. “We’re also leveraging ways to identify this type of behavior more quickly and prevent policy-violating ads before they happen.”
Facebook accepted more than $3 million for the retirement-related ads that linked to Metals.com or were placed via Facebook pages apparently affiliated with Metals.com. Those pages, combined, would’ve been the 13th largest political advertiser on Facebook after the US election in 2018, by Quartz’s calculation based on spending data published by Facebook last November. They outpaced actual national-level political spenders like the Senate Leadership Fund (a Republican SuperPAC) and various high-profile state hopefuls, such as Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Both the impressions and spending figures are likely underestimates because Facebook only began tallying them in May 2018, well after the retirement-related ads started. The number of impressions, more than 45 million, is also a substantial underestimate because Facebook only reports each ad’s impressions in wide ranges, making totals impossible to calculate precisely.
Facebook has opposed calls for it to be broken up under antitrust law, saying that a smaller company would have even fewer resources for enforcing the rules.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press exposed solar panel-related ads on Facebook that referenced non-existent tax breaks. The ads, for which Facebook accepted millions of dollars, reportedly weren’t blocked until state governments brought the ads to the company’s attention. Facebook later filed a previously-unreported lawsuit against the company behind the ads for breach of contract and unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business practices; the suit is ongoing and the company that placed the ads doesn’t appear to have filed a response.
Buzzfeed News last month exposed an elaborate boiler-room-style scam where an e-commerce company rented people’s Facebook accounts to place deceptive ads. And The Huffington Post reported this month that a big political advertiser had been baiting Facebook users to buy supposed concealed-carry gun permits online by stoking fears that Democrats would change state gun laws.
A uniquely Facebook problem
To be sure, sketchy gold sellers have long advertised all over conservative media, from Newsmax to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. But Metals.com’s success can be chalked up to someone’s canny use of Facebook’s advertising system, which, in addition to targeting susceptible victims, meant the authorities were much less likely to come across the ads on their own. Writing about the issue generally, Ford, the law professor, said “Most investigators aren’t likely to be members of the groups targeted by scammers, so they won’t naturally see scam ads.”
While most of the ads we linked to Metals.com touch on political topics, Facebook’s enforcement systems haven’t always categorized all of them as political—a frequent problem on the platform. Ads it considers non-political aren’t archived for researchers in Facebook’s own ad-transparency database.
Additionally, the information about how the ads were microtargeted is hidden from Facebook’s ad-transparency database. Instead of disclosing the audiences to whom the advertiser chose to show the ad, Facebook instead only discloses a breakdown of who actually saw the ad by age, gender and US state. Facebook has claimed this breakdown is more transparent.
Through a crowd-sourced transparency project called the Facebook Political Ad Collector, Quartz obtained both the politics-tinged ads missing from Facebook’s archive along with the explanation of the ads’ target audience. The ad collector, in which users automatically share the Facebook ads they see with news organizations, was previously run by Quartz’s Jeremy Merrill, one of the authors of this story, while he was at the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. The project is now maintained by The Globe and Mail newspaper.
In the past, Facebook has taken technical steps that have temporarily shut down the ad collector’s access to targeting data.
Exposing the details of this metals-selling scheme wouldn’t have been possible without that externally collected data. Quartz relied on the list of all ads targeted to individuals 59 or older—a category that included almost exclusively ads later linked by Quartz to Metals.com. Facebook’s own tools make it impossible to search in such a way.
Help us track political ads—and ads like these
On your computer, visit tgam.ca/fbpac and follow the instructions to install the extension in Chrome or Firefox. Then browse Facebook normally, and the ads you see will be shared with journalists, including those from Quartz.
If you or someone you know lost money in a gold or silver scheme, here’s how to get help.
Let us know if you know more.
This story is from Quartz’s investigations team. Here’s how you can reach us with feedback or tips:
Be the first to know.
Sign up for the Quartz investigations email and get updates 2-3 times per month.