Scammers using fake Forbes articles and anti-EU disinformation as bait continue to target Facebook users across Europe, Metamorphosis Foundation warned in a statement issued in Skopje on May 28.

Metamorphosis is a civil society organization from North Macedonia promoting digital rights and media literacy. Its monitoring of social networks reveals that scammers continue to use Facebook advertisments masked as links to articles from the respectable Forbes.com, as well as continuing disinformation trends involving not only China, but also European Union members like Sweden.

Sample of the Facebook ads promoting a fake Forbes.com article, actually leading to website run by scammers. Photo by Meta.mk.

On May 19, Ministry of Interior Affairs of North Macedonia warned the citizens that  scammers use social networks and e-mail to distribute links towards which was misrepresented as articles from Forbes.com promoting purchase of a supposed new Chinese cryptocurrency.

The citizens who click on the links and provide personal data to the scammers would then be targeted by phone calls persuading them to start ‘investing’ by paying installments of 250 dollars, a sum that would be increased through various other manipulation techniques.

The anti cyber-crime unit of the Macedonian police claimed that the malicious links lead to a website hosted in Ukraine, allegedly run by a Russian citizen in a manner similar to the debunked OneCoin Ponzi scheme run by Bulgarian fraudster Ruja Ignatova, that inflicted worldwide damage of over 4 billion dollars.

Data publicly provided by Facebook about the geographic reach of the advertisments that promote these links goes far beyond the borders of North Macedonia, activists warn.

Manipulative ads help scammers gather personal data from victims

Metamorphosis identified several kinds of similar ads that are active on social networks. Users who click on these ads are redirected to addresses such as https://fishing2510.myshopify.com/blogs/news/dollar-faces-the-threat-of-being-displaced-by-chinadigital-currency?fbclid=IwAR3x_uvBatgzsr_wLZtDF1z5A1L7cb5F-T_-kefu36mP7n2I4dPk4jzf8N4 instead of pages on Forbes.com website.

“Misleading advertisements continue to target social network users across the world. Using the public data provided by Facebook about the ads targeting the audience based in North Macedonia as starting point, Metamorphosis team revealed that the same ads are served in almost all European countries, as well as countries in the Middle East. Scammers use pages about culture, even about cookies to launch ads that lead the users to web pages and blogs that look almost the same as the ones the Macedonian police warned about,”  stated Bardhyl Jashari, Executive Director of Metamorphosis.

Metamorphosis, a member of the European Digital Rights – EDRI network, has been working on promoting human rights online, including children safety online since its founding in 2004.

“A very worrisome development is that these organized crime networks also use pages aimed at children and teenagers to camouflage their malicious contents. For instance a page branded as community for the popular game MineCraft (titled Minecravt) had been running ads that continue to disseminate disinformation about Sweden, aimed at users in Russia, Austria, Belgium, but also in Singapore, Qatar and United Arab Emirates,” Jashari noted.

Facebook transparency tools reveal that a MineCraft themed page is used as platform for ads by scammers.

Users clicking on these ads are taken to a page providing some sort of incentive for them to leave their personal data. In case of Sweden this was masked as some sort of discount coupon.

Content of a page set by suspected scammers promoted through Facebook ads.

While MineCraft has a huge adult following, it is particularly popular game among children aged between 9 and 11. This practice helps in conditioning future audiences that would be more susceptible to both disinformation and scamming.

Scammers exploiting the impact of political disinformation 

Facebook ad promoting a scam page and amplifying disinformation about Sweden and the EU.

In November 2019, Metamorphosis’ Critical Thinking for Mediawise Citizens – CriThink project warned that scammers benefit from established disinformation narratives about Sweden.

Sponsored Facebook posts lure people who had been previously primed, through right-wing populist propaganda media networks based in North Macedonia, to believe into media manipulations about unrest in the country and the European Union (EU), originally purported by pro-Kremlin media.

In the same manner like the above-described scams, these articles promoted fake news that Sweden has introduced a cryptocurrency opposing the Euro.

To launch these geo-targeted ads, scammers used series of pages with general interest topics, including some branded as unofficial fan clubs of Western celebrities like the actors Liam Neeson and Anthony Michael Hall.

CriThink, which is an initiative supported by the EU Delegation in North Macedonia, educated the local social media users on how to use the transparency features of Facebook pages used by the scammers, in order to flag and report the suspicious pages using the  mechanisms provided by the platform.

In order to boost citizen engagement and active role in raising the levels of media literacy, CriThink articles related to social networks provide instructions on how users can use the reporting features to alert the administrators about harmful contents, from hate speech to scams.

Notification by Facebook about removal of ads by scam pages targeting users in North Macedonia.

Several weeks later, in December 2019, Facebook had informed some of its users who participated in the online action that they had removed the ads reported as scams.

Background: History of media manipulations concerning Forbes in RNM

Due to the fact that Forbes magazine enjoys good reputation as a source of credible information from the world of finance, during the previous years it was a subject of another kind of media manipulations in North Macedonia.

The government that ruled the country from 2006 to 2017 used taxpayers money to publish advertisments, or sponsored promotional articles, in Forbes magazine and other Western media. These articles mainly concerned the advantages offered by the country for foreign investors.

However, these articles had also domestic propaganda use. The media under close to the populist ruling party misrepresented the advertised contents as articles written by economic experts on Forbes staff, who seemingly praised the economic policies of the then-government. This media swindle was repeated periodically, and was debunked several times during 2014 by the Media Fact-Checking Service, established by Metamorphosis with USAID support.