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Washington AG And Facebook Challenge Ad Scams In Federal Court

Amy Radil

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and Facebook are teaming up to sue a company that they say targets Facebook users with illegal spam. KUOW's Amy Radil reports.


As far as Facebook users know, they are receiving a recommendation from a friend to watch a shocking video clip with a title like, "See What Happens To His Ex–Girlfriend!" But that message actually came from the firm Adscend or its affiliates. And as users click through various widgets in search of the video, they are unwittingly spreading the message to their friends. Then they are asked to fill out surveys with their personal information or to click on the sites of Adscend's advertising clients.

Paula Selis with the Washington Attorney General's Office says there is no video at the end of the trail.

Selis: "But what has happened in the meantime is that the user's friends have all received the same salacious posts, and the scheme perpetuates itself, and Adscend makes a lot of money."

Attorney General Rob McKenna calls this practice "click–jacking." His office and Facebook have both filed lawsuits in federal district courts. They are seeking an injunction against Adscend as well as civil penalties and damages. But McKenna says Adscend's advertising clients, which include Domino's Pizza and other big names, aren't necessarily aware of the company's tactics.

McKenna: "The advertiser, whether it's Domino's or any other company, doesn't actually know every place their ads are being placed. What they know is how many people click through to fill out a survey or sign up for a coupon or what have you."

McKenna appeared alongside Facebook's attorneys in the company's new Seattle offices, where there are about 70 employees. Facebook's lead litigation counsel Craig Clark says the company has managed to block these solicitations.

Clark: "We launched a fix developed by an engineer, actually here in the Seattle office, some time ago to combat these particular types of Spam."

But he says spammers are always innovating, so Adscend may have a new method to reach users by now. The financial news site 24/7 Wall Street recently called Facebook one of the 10 most hated companies in America, based on customer satisfaction scores.

Facebook's general counsel Ted Ullyot says spam hurts the company and its users. He hopes lawsuits like this one can help stop it.

Ullyot: "It can be something like this that leads somebody to have a bad experience and blame Facebook. That's part of the reason we don't like these things, because most people would not recognize that this is not somehow a Facebook product. They would assume, 'Hey Facebook is sending me this, I don't like that,' therefore that damages our brand."

The Attorney General's Office estimates that Adscend has earned up to $20 million per year for some time using these tactics. The AG's office is seeking damages that could total millions of dollars. Adscend is based in Delaware; the company did not respond to a request for comment.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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