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Many Brands Involved

PCWorld found that the deceptive marketers have targeted a large number of big-name brands--including Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Hooters, Ikea, Martha Stewart,McDonald's, Petco, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market--for this type of misleading advertising on Google within the past week. (Click the image below to see a full-screen version of the fake McDonald's ad.)

The shaded ad at the top of this page didn't lead to a McDonald's site, but to a gift card site.
In most cases, searching Google for various specific brands from computers located on the East Coast yielded top Google Sponsored Links claiming to take the searcher to the brands' official Website. The exception was the unauthorized ad for Ikea; the ad did not purport to be for the company's "Official Site." It merely posted the word "Ikea" and the URL "" along with the phrase "Beautiful solutions for your house visit us today."

When notified of the spurious ads by PCWorld, Google immediately shut them down.

Dealing with people who misrepresent themselves is an issue that everyone on the Internet lives with, according to Prosser. The Google AdWords team works hard to vet ads before the public sees them, Prosser says, adding that each ad must live up to strict standards: "Ads must be relevant, original, high quality, and can't be misleading. If a site is deemed [to have] a low quality landing page [the Web page the site takes you to when you click on it] we will disable the ad."

Get Your Free $500 Gift Card

People in the advertising industry refer to free gift card offers as incentive marketing--a growing and lucrative part of the advertising business, in which marketers promise something of value in return for personal information about the gift card recipient. The bargain is sometimes the promise of free iPods and gift cards. The marketer then sells profiles of the recipient's personal data to other advertisers, who pitch offers to targeted demographics. "There is a sliding scale of black, gray, and legitimate ways to do this type of marketing," says Peter Bordes, chief executive officer of MediaTrust, an online advertising firm. Free gift card offers are one of the crudest ways to entice people to hand over personal information, he says.

A bogus Ikea gift card offer on Facebook took in 40,000 victims earlier this year. Facebook promised action against the fake gift card offers this past April.

The site (maintained by Tester-Rewards) that offers an opportunity to receive a Best Buy gift cards reads: "Congratulations! Get a $1000 gift card free!" To become eligible for the $1000 Best Buy gift card, you must share personally identifying information, including your phone number. According to the site's terms of service, registering with the site is the same as "expressly requesting a phone call, pre-recorded message, SMS text (std msg rates may apply) and/or email from this list of Marketing Partners: WCA, NationalCashFinder, Debt Reduction Experts, YourDiabeticSavings, MyEducationAdvisors or Automobile Protection Plus."

Offers for free gift cards have been the bane of both consumers and the companies whose brands are used lure consumers. Walmart has set up an informational page called "Gift Card Sponsor Scam," warning people against the marketing tactic. The Better Business Bureau has notified consumers of shady gift card offers, too.

Walmart warns: "The goal of this scam is to encourage consumers to spend money on 'sponsor offers' in the belief that they will eventually receive a high value gift card. However, after fulfilling the 'sponsor offers' the consumer may never even receive the gift card or will have spent more money on the offers than the worth of the gift card."

Protecting Yourself From Bogus Ads

Using advertisements to make services look legitimate is nothing new, says Paula Greve, director of Web security research at McAfee. "They have been used to drive traffic to free product and gift card offers, malware-laced Web pages, and phishing scams," Greve says. She says that McAfee has noticed more attempts at fraud within search engine ads because it's getting harder to manipulate natural search results to make shady pitches rise to the top of results.

What's unique in this instance, she says, is the fact that shady marketers were able to pass themselves off as official Web sites of large brands in Google Sponsored Links. Usually, questionable ads refer to brands, but stop short of claiming to be those brand.

Many people use tools like McAfee's free SiteAdvisor utility to alert them to suspicious links in search results. SiteAdvisor flags sites with red, yellow, or green markings, with red indicating the most dangerous sites.

But SiteAdvisor wouldn't have helped searchers avoid these bogus links. Greve says that Google Sponsored Links aren't scanned for safety. But while the tool won't warn you before you click such a link, it will warn you once you arrive at a questionable site.

Online advertising expert Edelman of Harvard Business School says that Web users should be able to depend on Google for better protection. "Google should be checking ads more vigorously to prevent this type of scam," he says. "This doesn't seem to be a particularly sophisticated scam. Google owes it to its users to be a little bit smarter than the dubious marketers."

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