Asher Burke died in March after a helicopter he'd chartered to visit the Kenyan ranch he'd invested in as an "entrepreneur playground" crashed in high winds; his stateside obits called the 27-year-old deputy political director of the Republican Party of San Diego as an entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of Ads, Inc, "on a mission to disrupt the lifestyle industry with our advanced approach to product creation and marketing."
But Ads, Inc was a huge con, a sophisticated and elaborate Facebook hustle that combined ever trick in the Republican-affiliated grift playbook: it was a pyramid scheme recruiting stay-at-home moms, a quack remedy company that used celebrity endorsements to market to low-information boomers with pages that were dolled up to look like Fox News, an offshored con that used low-waged workers in the Philippines to manage the dull, repetitive aspects of the con.
Here's how it worked: Ads, Inc, pitched itself to stay-at-home Facebook moms as a multi-level marketing scheme and payed them to recruit their friends to "rent their Facebook accounts." Recruits were sent a Raspberry Pi-based gadget to plug into their routers that would impersonate them on Facebook and plant millions of deceptive ads.
The ads would feature a photo of a celebrity along with a false claim of some scandal they were embroiled in (internally, the company called these "jail bait" since ads that falsely claimed that beloved celebs were in jail generated tons of clicks).
People who clicked the links were automatically vetted through Facebook's own query system to weed out Facebook employees who were checking on these ads -- the Facebook version of Uber's illegal greyball system that wouldn't accept bookings from transit regulators checking up on the service.
Clickers who weren't greyballed were sent on to scam product sites that marketed the shittiest imaginable Chinese goods -- the kinds of things that scammy dropshipping evangelicals market to one another -- along with quack remedies ("China-made sawdust in a capsule" in the memorable phrase of a company insider) marketed for erectile dysfunction and other scammy pharma favorites.
Once the customers took delivery of their overpriced garbage, the scam was just getting started. Buried in the fine-print of the click-through agreement was a promise by the customer to accept recurring deliveries of "products," whose prices would balloon after the initial order. The 800 number for unsubscribing was barely staffed, and many customers found the only way to cancel their orders was to cancel the associated credit-cards.
Burke played the regulators like a fiddle, even figuring out how to con his way into a warehouse of garbage that the FTC has seized after an investigation, smuggle out a vanload of "product" and get it shipped to his latest batch of victims.
Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman unravelled the whole story in a long, masterfully reported expose that drew on leaked chat transcripts, internal docs, and interviews with past and present employees.
The docs paint a picture of a complete sleazeball, shooting Adderall and steroids and barking nonsensical inspiration-porn at impressionable Southern California staffers, presumably drawn from the same families that staffed the region's legendary boiler rooms that made it ground zero for the Savings and Loan and subprime crises.
But also revealed in the tale is the extent to which the celebs whose identities Burke stole set the stage for the crime, selling their own credibility to endorse quack remedies that may not have been quite as scammy as Burke's sawdust pills, but were by no means real health products worthy of anyone's money or attention (looking at you, "Doctor" Oz).
Eric Meyers -- brought in as "chief experience officer" by Burke -- took over as CEO after Burke's death. Once Buzzfeed asked him for comment on their report, Meyers and the company released a simultaneous notice announcing that the business was shutting down, though at least one insider casts doubt on this, suggesting they might be lying low and waiting for the fuss to die off before going back to ripping off millions.
BuzzFeed News reviewed more than 100 ads that have run via Ads Inc.’s rented accounts on Facebook in recent months and obtained a list of roughly 1,700 Facebook pages that have been used to run these ads since 2016. In addition to Willie Nelson, these celebrities included Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Carrie Underwood, Morgan Freeman, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Phil, Amy Schumer, Dr. Oz, and Billy Ray Cyrus. Ads targeted to other parts of the world — including Canada, Australia, the UK, Singapore, Denmark, and Malaysia — have used celebrities popular there.
In some cases, the ads avoided using a celebrity’s full name, possibly as a way of getting past Facebook’s ad review process. “C Underwood Cancels Tour,” read one ad with a photo of the country singer. Another with a photo of Dr. Phil used the headline “Phil Suspended Indefinitely From All TV.”
One ad featuring country music star Tim McGraw — and a false claim that he had been arrested — was placed on an Ads Inc.–created Facebook page called “Guitar Tabs” in August. Records show that Ads Inc., or a partner that paid to use one of its rented accounts, spent $44,525.68 to run the ad and brought in $79,149.60 of revenue.
“We call it jailbait,” the Ads Inc. employee said. “Jailbait makes more money than anything. Just throw someone in jail.”
How A Massive Facebook Scam Siphoned Millions Of Dollars From Unsuspecting Boomers [Craig Silverman/Buzzfeed]
(via The Grugq)