Fake celebrity endorsements are a capital-P problème on the internet right now, exploiting loopholes in the $6.8 billion affiliate marketing economy to scam consumers out of their money. A lawsuit filed by Ellen DeGeneres and Sandra Bullock against such con artists, first reported by The New York Times on Wednesday, highlights just how prevalent these endorsements are, and how easy they are to fake.
Here’s how it works: A shady, hard-to-trace company creates a fake news site (like one that promotes fabricated stories of major celebrity deaths and actors “quitting Hollywood”) and populates it with articles hawking a variety of allegedly celebrity-endorsed products in the hopes that viewers will click the product links in that article and buy said products from the e-commerce site they’ve clicked through to. The scammers will then make a commission off the purchases, (say 10 percent or 15 percent). These ads and articles tend to feature an actress over 40, the Times said, because celebs like Sally Field and Oprah Winfrey apparently have a lot of credibility with the targeted (presumably female, over-40) consumer. The companies might claim to offer a free trial or only ask for minimal payments (like $4.95 for “shipping”), when in reality they’ve tricked people into a purchasing a subscription, per the Los Angeles Times, charging them over and over for products they’ll be billed for if they don’t immediately take steps to return them. The speed with which companies can create and dissolve presences on the internet has made this a particularly tricky problem: sometimes the company faking the ads is the same company distributing the products, sometimes not. These companies divide, rename, and merge entities often to evade legal action.
“The celebrity endorsement-theft business model is based on a scheme to trick consumers into disclosing their credit card and/or debit card information in order to enroll them in costly programs with undisclosed, or poorly disclosed, recurring charges,” Bullock and DeGeneres said in the complaint, per the Times.
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to avoid falling for one of these grifts:
Stop buying things you find at the bottom of a rabbit hole online. Sticking to brick-and-mortar shopping is probably unrealistic in the 21st century, so why not just avoid buying anything from an unvetted retailer? Are there reviews? Do the reviews look real? Do they read like reviews that actual people who aren’t being paid by the retailer wrote? Have people you know bought things from these sellers? Those are all good signs that you’ll actually get the thing you’re buying and nothing else.
Actual ads must always be clearly marked as ads, according to the law. An endorsement presented as a news story, e.g. “Judith Light Abandons Hollywood to Focus on Skincare Line Sëcretto di Judithîée” is never real.
Don’t buy anything from an ad that appears in the chumbox section of a website or any ad that looks like it’d be right at home next to thumbnails of women getting creepy skin peels, old headshots of former child stars, and fingers with holes in them.
Look at the ad. Is it a high quality photo of the celebrity holding the product in question? Does it have a high quality video of the celeb saying the product’s name? Could be real! Is it a Photoshop disaster or a random photo of the celebrity from a totally unrelated media appearance? Definitely not real!
Cancel your bank account. Go off the grid. Befriend a bear. Never buy anything. Fashion your own makeup out of foraged leaves and berries. Hope that helps.
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