An ad scam promising fake tax credits for solar panels targeted Facebook users for months before the social media company started taking down pages the ads promoted, following inquiries from the AP. A page that was active on Facebook until Wednesday, called Solar Energy Today, has run almost 5,000 ads in the last year, all of them advertising the fake rebate. The ads targeted users by state and typically featured photos of various state governors, as well as photos of President Trump.
The way the solar energy scam appears to have worked is that the fake rebate ads referred users to websites that prompted them to enter personal information. The practice is called lead generation, and the personal data it harvests is usually sold to other marketing firms by data brokers. Facebook recently ended a partnership with several large data brokers that were allowed to access users’ personal information for advertising purposes.
According to Facebook’s new ad library, the Solar Energy Today page spent $2.4 million on advertisements between March 2018 and March 2019, averaging about $100 on each ad. The ads were all labeled in Facebook’s advertising system as “Related to politics or issues of importance” and shared similar themes. They typically featured photos of state governors, President Trump, or photos from state elections. One ad from January had a photo of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“ATTENTION FLORIDA HOMEOWNERS: Don’t Waste Money On New Solar Panels! There is a new 2019 program that quote you the best solar deal IMMEDIATELY for FREE,” the accompanying text for the misleading ad read. “There is a new program release lately that Governor Ron DeSantis will release $100 million solar incentives for Florida solar expansion. If you are lucky enough to live in an active zip code, you can get life time electricity supply for free, Check it out and see if you qualify!”
The ad was displayed across 10,000 and 50,000 News Feeds and exclusively targeted users in Florida. Solar Energy Today spent between $100 and $499 boosting the ad. BuzzFeed News has reached out to Facebook for comment.
The ad is no longer active, but if you had clicked on the post, it would bring you to a website called Home Saving, which, as of this story’s publication, is still online. Home Saving prompts you to see if you qualify for the fake solar energy tax rebate. If you continue to follow the prompts, the website asks for more personal information, like your zip code, details about your electric bill, credit score, email, home address, and phone number. If you reach the end of the form, the website tells you that you’ve actually been preapproved and promises to eventually call you about your rebate.
If you go through all the questions on the solar energy site, you’ll eventually end up at a credit score website called Freescore360.com, which was part of a group of shady credit check sites that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated, and which agreed, as part of a settlement, to refund $22 million to customers in 2014. Freescore360’s parent company, One Technologies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Solar Energy Today’s ads are associated with several URLs, which all feature similar graphics, promotional text, and names, like BestHomeSaving.com, UrBigSavings.com, GetHomeSaving.com, and BigSavingUSA.com.
The phone number associated with the websites advertises a special offer for people age 60 or older. A few of the websites display an address that belongs to a coworking space called Pacific Workplaces based in Palo Alto, California. BuzzFeed News has reached out to Pacific Workplaces for comment.
Another address associated with a few of the fake rebate websites is one in Carlsbad, California. The Associated Press reported that the Carlsbad address was connected to a company that the FTC once investigated for running misleading ads. The company, Coleadium, which was also known as Ads 4 Dough, and has now renamed itself as A4D, was accused of promoting baseless health benefits of colon cleanses and açai berry products. The FTC investigation names Jason Akatiff as Coledium’s chief officer.
Akatiff told BuzzFeed News that he has no idea why A4D’s address is being listed on the fake solar rebate websites. “Our address is a UPS store,” he said. “There are hundreds of addresses there.” Akatiff said that A4D plans to send cease and desist letters to any website listing its address.
While Solar Energy Today’s page is no longer up and doesn’t have any active ad campaigns, a Facebook page called Idaho Resident Energy Savings had two similar ads that were active until Wednesday. After an inquiry from BuzzFeed News, the page is no longer active on Facebook.
Idaho does appear to have a solar energy rebate, however. The ads didn’t, at first glance, appear to be connected to Solar Energy Today, but they were listed as “Related to politics or issues of importance” in Facebook’s system, had text written in a similar style and syntax, and one featured a photo of Idaho Gov. Brad Little.
One ad read, “Canyon County HOMEOWNERS can now use State Tax Incentives to switch to solar with no money down and eliminate Idaho Power bills immediately!” It has had 50,000 to 100,000 impressions since February. The other ad, featuring a photo of Little, had the same amount of impressions. The website associated with both ads, IdahoEnergySavings.org, takes users to a slightly different form that asks for the same information as the websites being advertised by Solar Energy Today.
A man who answered the phone at the number listed on IdahoEnergySavings.org told BuzzFeed News that he had nothing to do with the Solar Energy Today ads — even though his ads were aesthetically similar. He also refused to provide a name.