Screenshot of some fake celebrity ads on TikTok captured by a Tenable researcher.

Published: September 3rd, 2020

A senior security response manager at security vendor Tenable warns that short-form video platform TikTok is “the Wild West of social media” that hosts dubious ads peddling fake mobile applications, diet pills, drop-shipped goods, fake gift cards and more.

TikTok is no different from other popular social media sites in hosting dodgy ads, Satnam Narang acknowledged in a blog today. “Which is why it is important for [current owner] ByteDance — and any new U.S. owner — to prioritize upleveling the app’s content moderation and abuse team in order to curtail these types of questionable ad practices.

“There’s ample room for improvement. For example, TikTok’s current functionality for reporting ads that are suspected of being a fraud or scam requires the user to provide additional information, including screenshots. This requirement might hinder users from filling out these reports, whi h might also cause them to flag certain advertisements incorrectly, which will give scammers additional time to run their advertisements.”

News reports suggest several companies including Microsoft, Oracle, Walmart and Twitter are or have been hunting to buy the U.S. business of China-based TikTok after U.S. President Trump demanded current owner ByteDance divest its American assets and any data that TikTok had gathered in the U.S. for security reasons.

Since then, China has issued new regulations on the export of technology, which may handcuff any sale and leave the platform in the hands of ByteDance.

Should there be a sale, the platform raises a “myriad” of concerns for a prospective U.S. owner, Narang writes. Not only does it allow questionable ads, he says, but TikTok has also acknowledged that — like other social media sites — it can be used for misinformation. Recently, it removed a manipulated video of U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

According to the latest numbers from the marketing site We Are Social, TikTok is the seventh most popular social media site in the world with 800 million monthly active users. At the top of the list is Facebook with 2.6 billion. The report notes many users have accounts on several platforms.

Paid ads on TikTok can only be seen on a subscriber’s “For You” page, which displays videos chosen by the platform’s algorithm based on videos a user has liked and creators they follow.

Scammers have a number of approaches, Narang said, including:

  • Ads offering users money in exchange for “completing tasks” such as downloading a variety of real applications from the Apple App Store and running them for three minutes. However, there are a series of questionable roadblocks put in front of users before they can allegedly cash in, and the amount players can earn is “negligible.”
  • Ads pushing the purchase of diet pills, some of which have doctored video footage of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson appearing to endorse the products.
  • Ads promoting the sale of directly-shipped or dropshipped products that are questionable including electronics, hardware, kitchen tools, clothing and accessories. Some ads go to websites hosted by Ottawa-based e-commerce platform Shopify but come from suppliers in China, Russia, Spain and France. That means their quality can’t be assured in advance. Narang says he’s seen online complaints of a TikTok ad for a gaming chair, but the purchaser ended up receiving a cheap phone stand.
  • Ads that promise free products or gift cards for completing a survey, or discounted services.
  • Ads that promise to fix poor credit ratings, and tuition assistance offers. Images of celebrities may appear in some ads, giving the impression of an endorsement. In tiny print a reader might see a note that the celebrity “may not be associated with the product or service advertised.”

Narang acknowledges that dodgy ads are found on many social media platforms, and there are challenges in moderating content and fighting platform abuse. TikTok, he argues, can do better.

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said the platform has strict policies to protect users from fake, fraudulent, or misleading content, including ads. Advertiser accounts and ad content are held to these policies and must follow Community Guidelines, Advertising Guidelines, and Terms of Service.

“We also have measures in place to detect and remove fraudulent ads, and advertising content passes through multiple levels of verification before receiving approval as well as once ads are running to help ensure authenticity, quality, and safety,” the spokesperson said. “We regularly review and improve these measures to combat increasingly sophisticated fraud attempts and to strengthen our systems further.”


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