In late November 2018, Asher Burke gathered his employees in their San Diego office and laid out a vision for how Ads Inc. was going to become an e-commerce powerhouse.
The tanned and muscular 27-year-old CEO detailed plans to merge the company he founded in 2015 with another e-commerce company, and hire 20 or so new employees with expertise in developing products, such as electric toothbrushes and hair extensions, to be sold online.
The goal was to “build a company that is a digital assembly line of brands that would appeal to every single person in this room,” he said in a recording obtained by BuzzFeed News, calling it “a really exciting vision worth getting up in the morning for and sinking your teeth into.”
At the time, Ads Inc. was a growing business with tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue and roughly 20 people in its San Diego office. And Burke — a politically connected entrepreneur who had served as deputy political director of the Republican Party of San Diego — was its founder, CEO, and mastermind.
There was just one problem: Ads Inc.’s business was a massive Facebook scam, and it had little, if any, expertise in legitimate e-commerce.
Since 2015, Ads Inc. has made money — lots of it — by executing one of the internet’s most persistent, lucrative, and sophisticated scams: the subscription trap. The subscription trap works by tricking people into buying what they think is a single free trial of a celebrity-endorsed product. Although the customers would receive the product — which in most cases was not made by Ads Inc. itself — in reality, the celebrity has nothing to do with the offer. And in purchasing the free trial, the customer unwittingly commits to a pricey monthly subscription designed to be hard to cancel.
As for the products, a current employee described the diet and male enhancement offerings as “the worst of the worst … China-made sawdust in a capsule.”
But the subscription trap was just one part of Ads Inc.’s shady business practices. Burke’s genius was in fusing the scam with a boiler room–style operation that relied on convincing thousands of average people to rent their personal Facebook accounts to the company, which Ads Inc. then used to place ads for its deceptive free trial offers. That strategy enabled his company to run a huge volume of misleading Facebook ads, targeting consumers all around the world in a lucrative and sophisticated enterprise, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.
There was just one problem: Ads Inc.’s business was a massive Facebook scam.
The investigation, which is based on internal Ads Inc. documents, interviews, recordings of staff meetings, and publicly available information, reveals that since 2016, Ads Inc. and black hat marketers working with the company have spent more than $50 million placing ads on Facebook through thousands of rented accounts. BuzzFeed News also uncovered how Ads Inc. utilized overseas workers in the Philippines to manage its account rentals and legions of associated Facebook pages, and built up a network of stay-at-home moms in the US to recruit friends and family members to rent their accounts.
Taken together, documents, recordings, and other information provide an unprecedented, detailed inside look at how black hat affiliate markers weaponize targeted advertising, fake news articles, and overseas labor to exploit Facebook on a massive scale. Burke’s Facebook account operation eventually became so large that Ads Inc. began selling surplus rented accounts and pages to other marketers for $800 per Facebook login. Meanwhile, the people whose account logins were being sold were paid $15 to $30 a month.
Account rental violates Facebook’s terms of service, as does the use of deceptive ads. The size of this operation raises serious questions about the company’s ad review practices and its ability to protect its users from harm, according to David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design.
“The market power of Facebook enables this scam because its scale prevents it from effectively monitoring it,” he said, calling it “one of the more obvious examples of consumer harm.”
BuzzFeed News provided Facebook with the findings of its investigation, including examples of pages and ads run by Ads inc. In response, Facebook began removing pages and accounts, sent the firm a cease-and-desist letter, and said it’s considering other legal options.
“We are taking enforcement actions against Ads Inc. as part of our ongoing investigation and evaluating legal options. We have no tolerance for bad actors that perpetuate scams and create poor experiences for people on Facebook,” said Rob Leathern, a director of product management for Facebook.
The Facebook account rental scheme run by Ads Inc. is by far the largest of its kind ever exposed, and, when compared to recent Federal Trade Commission cases, one of the largest-ever subscription trap operations in the United States. It’s also a reminder of how Facebook’s powerful ad tools have revolutionized scamming, putting average people in the crosshairs of sophisticated black hat marketers looking to rip them off.
“We’re the best in the world,” one Ads Inc. employee told BuzzFeed News. The employee said they believe it’s a risky and unlawful business, but said the money they’ve made has made them “numb” to the consequences.
“In the back of my head, I’m dreaming of the day they get shut down and they let us all go, but it’s too easy money for me to just quit,” said the employee, who asked not to be named to speak freely about the company.
“This is out of control across the board.”
Prior to these revelations, Ads Inc.’s public image has been that of a digital marketing firm led by a charismatic twentysomething with tight connections in San Diego GOP politics. “Ads Inc. is a rebel alliance of hustlers and doers on a mission to disrupt the lifestyle industry with our advanced approach to product creation and marketing,” states the company’s LinkedIn page, which boasts that it’s “one of the fastest-growing advertising agencies in California.”
Burke presented himself as the archetype of a successful, young tech industry CEO. His social media posts showed him and his statuesque girlfriend boarding helicopters, private planes, and first-class cabins to party in Las Vegas, tour Japan, and safari in Africa, where Burke would eventually invest in Ol Malo, a ranch, game sanctuary, and lodge in Kenya, hoping to turn it into an “entrepreneur playground.”
Kenya was a world away from where Burke grew up in Poway, an idyllic city roughly 40 minutes from San Diego. He and his siblings were homeschooled by his mother, a former teacher at a private Christian school. By high school, Burke leveraged his intelligence and charisma to become a competitive debater. “He was a smooth orator — glib and calm and confidant,” wrote Mary York, editor of the East County Californian, a local newspaper, in an article about Burke.
He put those skills to use in Republican politics. After high school, Burke interned for then-representative Darrell Issa (himself long dogged by allegations of business fraud) and worked on a campaign for state Sen. Brian Jones. In 2014, Burke was an aide to California State Assembly Member Tim Donnelly in his unsuccessful campaign for governor. Donnelly came third in the primary; he would later describe Burke as “the architect of [his] 2014 gubernatorial campaign.”
Building his political network, Burke donated $8,800 to state GOP candidates from 2012 to 2017, according to California political finance data, including $1,000 to Jones in 2017.
But by the middle of 2015, Burke apparently began to move away from a political career. He registered companies with names such as 3801 Marketing LLC, 700 West Marketing LLC, Next Level Marketing LLC, and Balling Inc., the latter of which he later renamed Ads Inc.
“Do into the ass,” Burke said, and offered to inject it for him.
In company Slack chats obtained by BuzzFeed News, Burke is every bit the young, brash CEO. These conversations took place in 2017 and 2018 with Sawyer Winston, a leader of the Facebook account rental business that was deeply intertwined with Ads Inc. The two friends discussed getting “baller” desks in their shared office, compared steroid regimens, and talked about injecting Adderall.
“Preparing my brain for 12 hours of Adderall,” Winston wrote in a message in July 2017.
“Do into the ass,” Burke said, and offered to inject it for him.
Winston initially expressed a desire to speak to BuzzFeed News, but he declined after being sent detailed questions. In a brief email, he said Burke is the best person to answer questions about the company.
“While he was outgoing, Asher was tight-lipped about his business activities and didn’t share a lot even with his friends or employees,” Winston said. “So I don’t know if it would make your story more interesting if I disparaged him or if I defended him, but I don’t want to disparage him and I’m not in a position to defend him.”
One of Burke’s big ideas in 2018 was to find a path to respectability. As Ads Inc.’s business grew, so did his fear of a raid from the “big bad FTC wolf,” as he referred to it in Slack messages.
The November 2018 staff meeting was a critical moment for Burke’s plan to go legit. The merger was a chance to eventually move away from what he described in a staff meeting as its “black hat” approach “where the customer is treated like a one time grab.” It was time to begin an “exodus to white hat,” he said.
That exodus never happened.
You don’t know Ads Inc., but you may have seen one of its ads on Facebook: a tabloid-style image that claims a celebrity has been caught saying or doing something scandalous that puts their career or life in jeopardy. The ad leads to a webpage that mimics a media brand such as TMZ, Fox News, or People magazine. But it’s all fake: the “news” article, the website, and the additional claim that this star has, for example, discovered an amazing new skin cream that you can try for a small fee. The fake celebrity scandal hinted at in the ad is the hook that gets people to click so they can be pitched on what appears to be a no-risk, product trial for a small shipping fee, such as $4.99.
Within a week or two of making that payment, another, much higher, charge appears on customers’ credit cards — because they have been enrolled in an expensive monthly subscription.
“You get a free trial and then you get rebilled. They say you can cancel but the 800 number is pretty hard to get through and pretty much the only way to go about it is canceling the credit card,” said the Ads Inc. employee.
Subscription traps, also called free trial scams, have long been a bane of the FTC: Over the past decade, the agency has gone after perpetrators who’ve stolen more than $1.3 billion.
Like emails from a Nigerian prince, the subscription trap is one of the most enduring — and wildly profitable — scams. Over time it has evolved in a way that exploits key aspects of the digital media ecosystem. It is a harmony of attention capture, seedy digital advertising, audience targeting and optimization, clickbait, user interface design, e-commerce, and insatiable greed. Like so many of our current digital ills, it targets vulnerable people on the biggest and most profitable digital platforms — such as Facebook — and authorities have proven largely ineffective at stopping it.
“This is clearly a massive worldwide problem,” said Steve Baker, who spent two decades investigating scams at the FTC and now runs the Baker Fraud Report, a website that reports on consumer fraud. Last December, he published a detailed report on subscription traps for the Better Business Bureau, which found that most people are charged roughly $100 by the time they’ve figured out what had happened.
“There is one demo that this workflow is targeted towards, and that’s baby boomers.”
“There are millions of victims of this, certainly,” he told BuzzFeed News.
The Ads Inc. employee said its victims often have one thing in common: age.
“There is one demo that this workflow is targeted towards, and that’s baby boomers,” they said. “You run this toward anyone else, and it’s a disaster. But you do this fake news shit with a trial offer scam and you send it to somebody that’s not that savvy [and it works].”
The Ads Inc. employee said the key is to take a celebrity older people like and find a product that matches their image.
“I like to say Willie Nelson is a fount of profit. You slap his face on a CBD offer on a site that looks like Fox News, and it sells itself. Everyone likes Willie and knows he likes marijuana,” they said.
The FTC frequently takes action against subscription trap operations, resulting in fines and asset seizures. Since 2006, the FTC has gone after at least 17 subscription trap operations. These cases alone represent more than $1 billion in consumer losses, according to the FTC. But these are just the ones that got busted, and the total amount lost by consumers to this scam is unquestionably much higher. There are always new ones to take their place — or sophisticated operators such as Ads Inc. that run for years without being caught. (The FTC declined to comment for this story.)
Companies running subscription traps are able to reach huge numbers of would-be customers by exploiting major ad networks, including those run by Facebook and Google. Credit card companies also play a key role by largely refusing to grant charge-backs to people who have been roped into a subscription without their knowledge, according to Baker.
He said the problem is getting worse as operators like Ads Inc. become more sophisticated and the remedies to stop them remain the same. The FTC can only take civil action, which he said limits the ability to deter would-be scammers.
“The only thing, other than criminal prosecutions, that will do anything is if you can cut off these guys’ access to the credit card system,” Baker said.
Subscription traps have grown so lucrative and ubiquitous that they’ve become a major problem for the celebrities whose images are critical to the sales pitch. A fake celebrity endorsement is essential to convince consumers that a product is worth paying for, according to Baker. “I talked to several of the victims of these, and they said it was the presence of the celebrity which convinced them that this was for real,” Baker said.
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.”
The Facebook page that was used to place the McGraw ad received several negative reviews from people about the misleading content and product pitch. These are likely Facebook users who saw the ad appear in their timeline and went to the page to complain. One person was upset that they’d received additional credit card charges after they signed up for a “free trial.”
Another recent success was an ad that falsely claimed director Peter Jackson had been arrested. That ad was run on a page that Ads Inc. created called “Salad Crazy.” The marketer spent $34,765.69 targeting the ad on Facebook and brought in $71,473.50 in revenue, the records show.
Facebook does not allow ads that misuse celebrity images to spread false news, and the company also bans deceptive ads that direct consumers to subscription traps or other scams. Ads Inc. outwitted Facebook’s detection systems and ad review process in part thanks to “cloaking.” Each ad includes a link to a website, but the scammers make sure that the landing pages with fake celebrity endorsements and calls to purchase are only shown to users who meet specific criteria.
If a Facebook ad reviewer were to click the link, they would likely be taken to a “safe page,” often a hastily thrown-together food blog. But the average person would be taken to a different page engineered to make them hand over their credit card number.
The rented accounts were also key to avoiding detection by Facebook, and obscuring who had bought the ads. Campaigns would be purchased using different rented accounts that paid with different credit cards. This shell game concealed that the accounts and their ads were actually all being run by the same operation. Facebook would shut down accounts and pages, sources said, but it was never able to connect them back to Ads Inc.
Ads Inc. outwitted Facebook’s detection systems and ad review process.
The pervasiveness of these ads on Facebook and elsewhere has caused some celebrities to complain publicly. In February 2017, Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran teamed up with Dr. Oz to track down people in San Diego who, independent of Ads Inc., were allegedly marketing skincare cream subscription traps using her image.
Dr. Oz also dedicated an episode to a different San Diego company that was using an image of the show’s host, Dr. Mehmet Oz, to sell weight loss supplements. The target was Tarr Inc., a company that later paid a $6.4 million fine after an FTC investigation.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Oz said these types of operations are growing more sophisticated. “Instead of a bunch of small-time hoodlums, you have real businesses and professionals getting into this. It’s getting progressively more dangerous [for consumers], and they co-opt Facebook and Amazon and Google,” he said. “It’s a whole generation that knows how to make money this way, and it’s become normalized.”
Two of the three men the FTC named as principals of Tarr Inc. — Ryan Fowler and Nathan Martinez — share multiple Facebook friends with Asher Burke, and it’s clear he was familiar with the company as early as 2015. (Fowler and Martinez did not respond to Facebook messages from BuzzFeed News.)
One of the few public posts on Burke’s Facebook profile showed him and a friend working out at a gym. His friend is wearing a Tarr Inc. hat. “Repping that #TarrInc hat,” Burke wrote as his caption. That post was removed after a BuzzFeed News journalist visited the Ads Inc. office and Burke’s parents’ house in San Diego earlier this month.
A jolt of fear struck Burke and Winston in August 2017 when the FTC raided the offices of RevGo, a Nevada company that marketed the same type of subscription traps as Ads Inc. Burke said in Slack that RevGo was helping Ads Inc. as a fulfillment partner. This meant RevGo was responsible for shipping products after customers handed over their credit cards to purchase products promoted by Ads Inc., such as CBD oil and diet pills. (In April 2018, RevGo’s principals agreed to a settlement with the FTC that required them to forfeit assets “including money, vehicles, and proceeds from the sale of two homes.”)
“Time to pack our bags,” Winston said via Slack.
But Burke reassured him.
“Nah, they got raided Wed or Thurs, long enough delay that I think we’re fine,” he said.
“Also they wouldn’t raid fulfillment to get to us.”
Burke listed the differences between RevGo and Ads Inc., trying to explain how his company was smarter.
“They are all just excuses why we are better than they are which we are,” he said, adding, “it’s a thin fucking thread.”
“We are the same as them dude,” Winston replied.
But Burke, a poker player who had competed in tournaments, including the 2014 World Series of Poker, decided to push his luck. Days after discussing the raid, he told Winston he managed to retrieve their product from the RevGo warehouse and ship them to customers, even though it had been housed in a facility that the FTC had seized.
“Found some donk in vegas to rent Uhaul, doctored invoices to fake FTC into giving us our product, took product to new fulfillment center in vegas in time to ship out to all waiting customers,” he said.
Baker, the former FTC investigator, offered his view of why Burke’s brazen scheme worked. After the FTC secures a court order to seize a business, it appoints a receiver to take over. That person, usually a lawyer, is responsible for deciding whether, for example, someone showing up at a warehouse with invoices could remove their product, he said.
“Found some donk in vegas to rent Uhaul, doctored invoices to fake FTC into giving us our product."
“The first couple days when [the receiver takes over], as you can imagine, they're just absolutely swamped. And if somebody showed up and said, ‘Hey, I'm legit and there's been a mistake,’ a receiver has got to make that decision on the fly,” Baker said.
The FTC declined to comment on Burke’s claim that he retrieved products from a seized warehouse.
A few months after the FTC raid, Burke and Winston felt they were in the clear. They were back in action, moving to hammer out out a revenue-sharing deal with a partner they referred to in Slack chats as Ralph, whose full name BuzzFeed News could not confirm.
“We got this baby, you are winning,” Winston wrote.
“We are winning,” Burke replied.
But even as they discussed a deal that would bring in more money, the partners couldn’t help but think about the FTC. Burke discussed how to structure corporate entities to protect themselves if the agency were to take action against them.
“If the big bad FTC wolf comes to take everything they can either take just [Ralph’s] or they can take his and yours,” Burke said to Winston, explaining how the deal insulated Ads Inc. because the FTC would only be able to seize assets belonging to Ralph and Winston. They also discussed how Winston had set aside money for this scenario.
The process for securing new Facebook accounts also helped shield Winston and Burke. Rather than Winston and his employees personally pitching people to rent their accounts, they recruited a network of women — in many cases stay-at-home moms — to do the work for them. It was a clever fusion of multilevel marketing and social media manipulation. And it meant Burke could scale his business to new heights by running huge numbers of misleading ads on Facebook.
These remote workers, called “bundlers,” post messages to Facebook to recruit friends, family members, and anyone else they can reach to rent their profiles. “Have you been looking for a way to make cash online? Are you on Facebook a lot? Stay at home mom? Might as well make money!” reads one. Bundlers earn hundreds or thousands of dollars a month by bringing in new people with available accounts. Ads Inc. records show the bundlers have brought in thousands of accounts.
In exchange for handing over their login credentials, a person receives an initial $10 and then between $15 and $30 a month to rent their account on an ongoing basis.
Once someone agreed to rent their profile, the account owner would log in, change the settings, register it to run ads, and document each (laborious) step with screenshots. At the end of that, they waited to receive a small Raspberry Pi computer in the mail, which would be plugged directly into their home router. This device enables Ads Inc. to control a person’s Facebook profile to buy ads. It also gives Ads Inc. unfettered access to the person’s account, though there is no evidence the company does anything other than place ads.
Slack chats between Burke and Winston and recordings from staff meetings show that Ads Inc. developed a careful process for how it operated rented accounts. The goal was to avoid Facebook flagging profiles as suspicious and removing them. No accounts, no ads, no revenue.
In May 2018, Winston reported that over the previous six weeks, the company had obtained roughly 1,000 accounts on Facebook and 500 on Google.
“Those Facebook numbers are super fucking good,” Burke said. He also said that the company needed “to be shipping like [200-plus Raspberry Pi computers a] week.”
Each new rented account would be linked with a new Facebook page created specifically to run ads. A current employee said the company uses virtual assistants in the Philippines who are paid roughly $3 an hour to set up and manage these pages. A recent quarterly review slide deck obtained by BuzzFeed News made multiple references to “VAs,” and two locations in the Philippines. Once a page and account are set up, those overseas workers would “warm” them up by posting content and running ads (typically spending around $200) to promote the page.
This process helps establish the page and its associated ad account as legitimate, and it has the added benefit of attracting likes from real people, which further establishes it within Facebook’s internal systems. Only once an account and page have been properly warmed up does Ads Inc. hand over the login to a “media buyer,” who will begin running misleading ads using celebrity images.
When it was all finished, Ads Inc. ended up with a page like Salad Crazy with more than 1,000 likes, at least 10 posts about leafy greens on its timeline, and the ability to run misleading celebrity ads to the target audience.
But in spite of building this huge operation up from nothing, by the end of 2018 Burke was focused on using his black hat affiliate profits to fund a path to legitimacy.
Five weeks after Burke gathered his team in November 2018 to tell them about the plan to transition to white hat e-commerce, he scheduled another all-hands meeting. This time he was joined by newly hired executives and a new partner, Christopher Lander, an e-commerce entrepreneur who had moved his operation from Connecticut to San Diego. In a recording of that meeting, Burke marveled at the fact that the staff had already doubled in size since the last gathering.
“It's kind of surreal to get up to speak and not know and not have even met all the people who are here,” he said. “We're going to fix that over cocktails in a second. But it's a really good and cool problem to have.”
He introduced the company’s new “Chief Experience Officer,” who would ensure everyone had “an amazing experience working here.” He also welcomed Eric Meyers, then the new head of the organization’s affiliate operation — the team’s advertising scam offers for diet pills, male enhancement supplements, and other products. Meyers was in charge of keeping the black hat operation running and throwing off profits to fund Burke’s white hat ambitions.
At another staff meeting in early 2019, a recording of which was also obtained by BuzzFeed News, Burke announced the ambitious goal of launching 12 new e-commerce brands by the end of the year.
“That's where we're headed as a company in the brands and e-commerce industry — to be out at a restaurant having dinner or out at a concert and see someone wearing or overhear someone talking about a brand that was created in this office,” he said. “It's like a super cool and very, very attainable mission over the course of the next nine months.”
But weeks later, Burke’s ambitions came to a tragic halt.
Burke, his girlfriend, and several friends had jaunted off to Kenya to stay at the lodge he’d invested in. After spending the day touring the area around Lake Turkana, Burke and his group found themselves stuck on an island as high winds kicked up and darkness approached. The helicopter pilots were not allowed to fly in the dark, so they would have to stay overnight if they didn’t leave soon. The group decided to risk the trip.
Hours later, the Kenyan military discovered the wreckage.
One helicopter carrying Burke’s girlfriend and others landed safely. The one with him, three friends, and a Kenyan pilot never returned.
Hours later, the Kenyan military discovered the wreckage. There were no survivors.
US media reports about the crash described Burke as a successful entrepreneur without describing his company or its activity. Tributes poured in from politicians like Donnelly, who said Burke was “always upbeat, optimistic and knew how to put a smile on your face.”
Mason Herron, former chief of staff to California State Assembly Member Randy Voepel, praised him warmly. “While it is clear Asher wanted success, he didn’t want it for himself — he wanted it so he could share it with others.”
The final photo on Burke’s Instagram feed is of him and his girlfriend at Lake Turkana, Kenya, with a helicopter in the background, not far from where he died. (His profile was made private after inquiries from BuzzFeed News.)
Soon after Burke’s death, the merger with Lander fell apart. “I do know Asher well and we were in the middle of a potential merger at the time of his accident,” Lander said in a LinkedIn message to BuzzFeed News.
He emphasized that his company has never operated subscription traps or used rented Facebook accounts for its marketing. That appears to be the case. Lander declined to comment on how much he knew about how Ads Inc. made its money at the time he and Burke were merging their companies. He also questioned whether Burke should be the subject of an article.
“It seems you’re unfairly attacking someone who tragically died and is now helpless to explain or defend himself,” he said.
Around the time Lander moved his operation out of the shared office, Meyers became CEO of Ads Inc., a job he holds today. Sawyer Winston, the account rental specialist, who had left at some point in late 2018, is now back in the office helping run things, according to an employee. And the company has focused on what it does best: ripping people off.
Also making an occasional appearance in the office is Brad Burke, Asher’s father and the executor of his estate. Sources say that while Burke’s parents did not know exactly what Ads Inc. did prior to Asher’s death, they do now. Brad Burke declined to comment on Ads Inc., but in a brief conversation with BuzzFeed News outside his house, he said, “We loved our son, and he was a great person who did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
Inside the Ads Inc. office now, the staff is smaller than it was a few months ago. One employee said workers who don’t meet new, higher quotas for revenue are fired immediately. “They’re trimming the fat,” the employee said.
When a BuzzFeed News reporter visited the office in early October, there were a few empty rooms, but plenty of other employees sat working at desks.
At the April all-hands meeting, Meyers assured everyone that they’d endured the instability Burke’s death had wrought and were returning the focus on subscription traps and Facebook account rentals.
“Obviously, affiliate is like the beating heart, [the] soul of the company, and is a majority of revenue that we generate. That's where we started, and there’s no plans to slow that down at all,” Meyers said.
In fact, they had plenty of rented Facebook accounts to pump out ads. “We’ve never had an account pipeline like this,” he said.
He closed the meeting with a call to arms.
“So yeah, just keep back to our profit centers and just digging back to our roots, and grind through Q2 and stack up some cash.”
Last Thursday, Meyers gathered his team to deliver news: no more fake celebrity ads or news articles. The company would soon focus on selling health and wellness products to its core market of baby boomers, including compression socks, sleep patches, and nose clips to prevent snoring. And no more subscriptions, either.
Ads Inc. was, yet again, trying to go legit, according to an employee who shared details of the meeting.
But the planned shift wasn’t exactly a result of altruism or new corporate strategy. That same day, as a result of inquiries from BuzzFeed News, Facebook served Ads Inc. with a cease-and-desist notice, instructing the company to end all activity on the platform. That likely explains why Meyers also told employees the company is suspending operations until this article appears.
Meyers and the company issued simultaneous statements to BuzzFeed News saying Ads Inc. is shutting down.
“They froze operations until they see the story,” the employee said.
It appears the freeze will be permanent. On Friday, Meyers and the company issued simultaneous statements to BuzzFeed News saying Ads Inc. is shutting down.
“We had some great plans for evolving the company, but unfortunately the plans have been cut short as a result of financial pressures that were created by Asher’s death,” Meyers said in an email. “As a result of these financial problems, and without Asher, we realized a few months ago it was likely the company would be shuttered.”
In its statement, which can be read in full here, Ads Inc. said Burke is the only person who “knew the full extent of the business and what his plans were for the future.”
“Today, unfortunately, we face the reality that without him here to answer questions and to help us understand what he created and where he was going, there is no way to continue his business pursuits. For that reason, in addition to our profound grief that we continue to cope with, and obviously in consultation with Asher’s Estate, we are discontinuing operations of Ads Inc. and its affiliates,” said the statement, which was unsigned and sent from an email address called “AdsInc Admin.”
The shutdown is news to Ads Inc. staff. The employee who spoke to BuzzFeed News had no idea the company is closing. They also didn’t think it meant the end of the Facebook account rental operation.
“I wouldn't be surprised if Eric and the other managers go ahead and unload it all somehow, there are definitely a lot of people out there that would still want the [accounts],” they said.
“That seems to be their only asset there. I’ve never seen or held a product or printed a packing slip. It’s all digital.” ●