In the fall of 2019, Facebook sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ads Inc., a San Diego marketing firm that bought over $50 million in Facebook ads that used the images of celebrities without their permission to trick people into enrolling in difficult-to-cancel monthly subscriptions.
Ads Inc. responded by laying off its staff and ending its operations, saying in a statement it was “discontinuing operations of Ads Inc. and its affiliates.”
But Facebook hasn't been able to keep the remnants of the company off its platform, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed News with an international consortium of journalists led by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
Until it shut down in April, ezlp.io, a web domain that Ads Inc. previously controlled, hosted pages that promoted scams, including fake cryptocurrency investments that have financially devastated people in more than 50 countries. It’s unknown who now controls ezlp.io. Facebook accounts that the company used to place ads are also still active. Those accounts were transferred to a new, unknown owner earlier this year, according to a source with knowledge of the operation.
Corporate records in California and Puerto Rico show Ads Inc. is still an active company, but sources tell BuzzFeed News the company sold off or otherwise disposed of whatever assets it could — including some of its rented Facebook accounts — and has been dormant since last fall. Ads Inc. was founded by Asher Burke, who died in a helicopter crash in Kenya in March 2019. The company is now owned by his estate, whose executor is Brad Burke, Asher’s father. Brad Burke did not respond to an email or to messages sent via Facebook and email to his wife and daughter.
Facebook has vowed to drive these kinds of ads away.
“We don't want ads seeking to scam people out of money on Facebook — they aren’t good for people, erode trust in our services and damage our business,” Rob Leathern, Facebook's director of product management, told BuzzFeed News. “To fight this, we work not just to detect and reject the ads themselves, but block advertisers from our services and, in some cases, take them to court. While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to investigate new technologies and methods of stopping these violating ads and the people behind them.”
The continued operation of former Ads Inc. assets underscores how Facebook is unable to completely remove scammers.
In July, the Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen discovered his image being used in an ad run by someone unknown pushing crypto investment scams. Exasperated, he wrote to Facebook’s head of EU affairs, Aura Salla, to complain.
"So far we have found out that this scam is extraordinarily smartly done,” Salla wrote back on Messenger, offering her apologies. “The quantity of these scams is so huge that it's not possible to check them by human labor.”
Before it shut down, Ads Inc. earned more than $1 million in commissions by promoting sham cryptocurrency trading products that lured people into financial ruin.
“I have nothing to live for,” said Maj-Britt, a 67-year-old Swedish woman who was rendered homeless after losing her life savings and selling her house to cover losses in a similar cryptocurrency investment fraud. (She asked not to publish her full name to protect her privacy.)
Victims were sucked in by Facebook ads that falsely claim that celebrities had made money using automated cryptocurrency trading software with names like Bitcoin Revolution and Bitcoin Code. People were asked to click through to enter their personal information. That information was sent to call centers that follow up by phone within minutes to ask for money. In reality, the software doesn’t exist and their profits are a mirage.
Earlier this year, Dagens Nyheter, the OCCRP, and other media partners published the Fraud Factory investigation, which went deep inside a crypto call center in Ukraine operated by a shadowy company called the Milton Group. After the stories appeared, a source who claimed to work in law enforcement contacted Dagens Nyheter.
“I saw a screen shot from [one of] the celeb-ads that you used to illustrate one of your stories. This ad was produced by Ads Inc.,” they wrote, and shared a link to an online database, ezlp.io, containing tens of thousands of webpages in multiple languages that used the images of celebrities to promote crypto investment offerings. These were the landing pages that Ads Inc. sent people to convince them to hand over personal information.
The company made no effort to disguise its ownership. The site’s homepage featured a login screen that said “Welcome to Ads Inc.” Multiple sources confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it belonged to Ads Inc.
The OCCRP found roughly 15,000 pages on ezlp.io that promoted at least 17 different investment offers in 11 languages. Some of the products have been the subject of public warnings from regulators in at least eight countries, dating back to 2018. The relationship between Ads Inc., the people who bought its assets, and the Milton Group is unclear, but several of the crypto investment brands found on ezlp.io were also listed in Milton Group documents.
That business appears to have been lucrative. Ads Inc. began promoting crypto investments in the second quarter of 2019. A slide presentation in a July 2019 company meeting listed “crypto” as one of the company's “wins to celebrate,” generating $1.15 million in commission revenue in that quarter. The document said crypto generated a 120% return on investment, making it the company’s most profitable vertical and a major priority for the next quarter.
Whether the site passed from Ads Inc.'s control after the company purported to go out of business is unclear. But it was still being updated with new content until it went dark on April 25 — six months after Ads Inc. said it had ceased operations.
Internal discussions at Facebook obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that the company continues to track the activity of former Ads Inc. employees. It’s unclear what, if any, actions have been taken.
“My team is currently still investigating the former employees to understand the current state of their operation following the dissolution of the company,” wrote a Facebook threat investigator on Workplace, the company’s internal discussion platform, in October.