TTP Investigation: Google is Running Scam Ads When Americans Search for Information on Stimulus Checks
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 16, 2020
Contact: Michael Clauw, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202.780.5750
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group that runs the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), released a report revealing that Google is showing exploitative ads to users searching for information about coronavirus stimulus checks. As of mid-May, millions of Americans had not received their stimulus money, and many searched Google for answers using phrases like “where is my stimulus check.” But TTP’s investigation found dozens of examples in which Google served questionable ads on such searches from websites that seek to harvest people’s personal and financial data, charge bogus fees, or plant unwanted software into their browsers.
CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said, “It is completely unacceptable that Google is helping scammers pry financial information from vulnerable populations who are simply trying to obtain their own money. Every time Google serves one of these ads, they are failing to provide accurate information to users and instead are profiting from financial predators. Google needs to be held accountable for aiding this deplorable behavior.”
The TTP investigation uncovered five distinct types of exploitative ads being served to users: credit card scams, marketing data scams, browser hijackers, third-party search sites, and predatory financial marketing.
One credit card scam ad identified by TTP appeared alongside search results for “stimulus check.” It directed the user to a bogus questionnaire, which tells anyone who completes it that they haven’t received their payment “because you need to fill out a simple form to get your money.” Users are then prompted to fill in their credit card information and pay a $34 “administrative fee.”
TTP also identified ads for marketing data scams, where the purpose is to collect personal information to sell it to marketers. When users click on these ads, they are directed to a fake sign-up form for financial services, which often has fine print stating that completion of the form constitutes a request for marketing companies to receive their personal information.
Another trend TTP found: Ads promoting malicious browser extensions. Such extensions, known as “browser hijackers,” are designed to modify people’s browser settings to route them to websites that serve more ads and mine user data. One of the ads identified by TTP pointed users to a browser extension that has been installed by more than 100,000 users.
Another misleading type of ad directs users to low-quality, third-party search sites, which exist only to show users even more ads. These ads appear to violate Google’s ban on “driving traffic (through ‘arbitrage’ or other methods) to destinations with more ads than original content, little or no original content, or excessive advertising.”
TTP also spotted ads for predatory financial marketing services alongside stimulus-related search results. These included get-rich-quick schemes as well as loan marketing pages that falsely implied a connection to the U.S. government. These ads run afoul of Google’s policies against misrepresentation.
Mr. Stevens continued, “Scammers will always try to find a way to exploit those looking for answers during difficult times, but Google should have no part in making it easier for them. By prioritizing revenue and profit in allowing these ads, Google is hurting users who rely on its service for truthful and accurate search results.”
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.