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The new Nigerian prince.
RINGING ANY BELLS?

How Facebook scammers are exploiting Narendra Modi’s popularity

Aria Thaker
By Aria Thaker

Reporter

Some prolific publishers of Facebook ads in India seem to be using the name and image of prime minister Narendra Modi to scam people.

The most common type of these ads claims people can buy smartphones at dirt-cheap prices, thanks to the backing of a non-existent prime ministerial initiative. A now-unpublished Facebook page called “Pradhan mantri yojna” (or prime minister’s scheme), for instance, ran around 570 ads during a five-day period, earlier this month, telling people that Modi was going to ensure that every poor person could buy a smartphone at just Rs99 ($1.40).

No such Modi-led initiative exists, and even if one did, it would certainly not require potential beneficiaries to use Paytm, a privately owned e-wallet service, to make a payment of just Rs99.

The site linked in the ads, which Quartz viewed a few days ago before it seems to have been taken down, uses a .tk domain—a free domain type that is often used by scammers engaged in ad fraud.

Another page, which has also been unpublished, appropriates the name “Jan Dhan,” a government scheme that aims to provide banking access to the poor, to make similar fraudulent claims about Modi providing smartphones for the poor. The page ran around 230 ads, all between Feb. 08 and 09.

Some of the scammers don’t seem to have been savvy enough to hide their names from the operation. One page running similar ads, called “Cheap phone,” redirects to a site that calls itself “Modi Mobile,” which is still active. When you check out, you are directed to a Paytm gateway for a payee called “Surjeet Singh.”

The ads in all these pages are now visible in Facebook’s Ad Library, a searchable archive of advertisements on the social networking site that are political or related to “national importance.” The Ad Library was recently rolled out in India as part of Facebook’s transparency efforts ahead of the country’s upcoming parliamentary election.

Of all the pages listed in the library that have published ads mentioning Modi, four of the seven most prolific ones seem to be scams. These pages have published a combined total of almost 1,200 ads—and that is just ads currently listed in the library, which was rolled out for India only recently.

None of the four pages in that top-seven list are active anymore, which may indicate that the social network is making some progress in its crackdown on inauthentic pages.

Facebook announced last month that it was seeking to make its pages more accountable, including by taking action against those that use similar names as pages that were previously found to violate Facebook’s rules.

But it seems there’s still work to be done. While many pages that the Ad Library shows as having run such ads are no longer active, some still seem to be. One page, “Digital India Mobiles,” is running ads that link to a free domain site that uses the same layout as the “Modi Mobile” site. The webpage also claims to hawk cheap smartphones.

Digital India Mobiles appears to have started when a page with the same name was unpublished. The defunct page was running nearly identical ads up till the day before the current one started to run them.

Ultra-cheap mobile phones have a murky history in India. A company called Ringing Bells launched a $4 smartphone in 2016, saying it had the “immense support” of the Modi government. Within months, the company declared it was losing over $2.50 on each handset and asked the government for $7.5 billion in support. An opposition politician called it the “biggest scam of the millennium.”

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.

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