A prominent British financial and consumer advice journalist launched a lawsuit against Facebook this week for running binary options ads featuring his image that have left trusting consumers fleeced of their money.
Three months after Facebook announced it was banning ads for binary options, cryptocurrencies, and ICOs (initial coin offerings), celebrity British journalist Martin Lewis is suing the company for libel over paid Facebook ads using his image that were promoting binary options. Facebook users who clicked on the ads and left their contact details reported being contacted by binary options websites, some of which, The Times of Israel has established, were run from Israel.
The lawsuit is a potential nightmare for the under-fire social media giant, since it goes to the heart of Facebook’s potential liability for material that appears on its pages. Some British commentators have suggested that Martin Lewis’s lawsuit, if successful, could open the floodgates to other claims against the company and render Facebook legally liable for what appears on its platform.
Lewis is seeking exemplary damages, also known as punitive damages, which are designed to deter Facebook from continuing to engage in the behavior for which it is being sued. He said he would give the money to groups that battle fraud.
Facebook “is facilitating scams on a constant basis in a morally repugnant way. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to be the champion of moral causes, then he needs to stop his company doing this,” Lewis was quoted by the Guardian as saying on Monday.
Binary options is an Israel-centered scam that duped victims worldwide out of billions of dollars for a decade. The entire industry was banned by Knesset law last October, but Israeli law enforcement has failed to investigate and prosecute the fraudsters, many of whom have taken their scams abroad or switched to new iterations involving cryptocurrency-related cons and other fraudulent operations.
“Facebook is facilitating scammers robbing vulnerable people of their money,” Lewis told the BBC on Monday. “It does this by running adverts with my name and my face for get-rich-quick schemes like Bitcoin Code and Bitcoin Trader which are fronts for binary trading schemes that are there to take money off vulnerable people.”
Lewis, a popular television personality and newspaper columnist, in 2003 founded a website called Money Saving Expert, which has 15 million visitors a month, according to information on the website. The site offers UK consumers advice on saving money.
His legal complaint, filed in the UK High Court of Justice on April 23, states that over the past year, Lewis has been informed of the existence of Facebook ads that claim or imply he endorses various get-rich-quick schemes. Many of these ads can be viewed on Facebook only by the targeted audience, which Lewis believes include people interested in saving money, people interested in investments and fans of his journalistic work.
The binary options sites may have used Facebook’s “lookalike audience” feature to provide the site with lists of people who already lost money to binary options, and asked it to target other Facebook users with similar profiles.
The ads Lewis appeared in are designed to look like links to popular news sites.
Thus a Facebook ad with a link to a site called Directdailymail.com quotes Martin Lewis purportedly saying: “It’s even dangerous to talk about it, because the powerful elite do not want the average British worker to have this much wealth.”
Another sponsored post appears to be from a site called “Netherlands Online,” reading: “Martin Lewis launched a platform that guarantees a bright financial future for all British.”
Lewis said he knew of several cases of Britons who had lost thousands of pounds to such sites after clicking on an ad using his name and image.
“One lady lost over 100,000 pounds; we were able to get a chargeback,” he told ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” show. “A man who lost 19,000 pounds won’t talk to me because he thinks I scammed him.”
The Times of Israel examined the URL of the directdailymail.com site and found that it shares an IP address with sites including b-b-c-reports.com, news-businessinsider.com, cnn-money-report.com and newsreport-forbes.com. All of these are short-lived lookalike news sites that closely resemble genuine news sites but featured false or misleading headlines like “Elon Mask [sic] invests 770-million on a bitcoin tech startup” or “Anonymous is going after global stock market. Promises to “‘make everyone rich.’”
These fake news sites also share an IP address with sites copybuffett.me, the-quantumcode.info, the-bitcoin-code.ltd, and britmethod.me. Users who have visited these and similar websites have posted in online forums that they were ultimately phoned by binary options companies, including ones The Times of Israel knows to have been associated with Israelis, such as Optionstars and BinaryTilt.
Binary options is an industrial-scale investment scam that was carried out in Israel for over a decade with little to no attention from law enforcement. At its height, binary options was estimated to steal $10 billion a year from thousands of victims around the world and employ thousands of Israelis in boiler rooms across the country.
The Knesset outlawed binary options in October, in the wake of investigative reporting by The Times of Israel since March 2016. The ban took effect on January 26 of this year. Some binary options operatives continue to quietly operate from Israel. However, most have either moved their operations abroad, to such countries as Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus, or changed the financial product they offer to CFDs or cryptocurrency.
On January 30, 2018, after a year-long dialogue with Canadian and US law enforcement, Facebook banned ads for binary options and cryptocurrency.
But some of the ads for binary options companies cited in Martin Lewis’ lawsuit appeared after the ban was introduced, in February 2018.
Lewis, who is Jewish, told the BBC on Monday that in his view Facebook is not making enough of an effort to combat these ads.
“I have reported [these ads] time and time again in the last year. I’ve put them on notice that I don’t do ads, so any advert with my name and face is fake. Stop running them. And it does nothing. I have to report them. When we report them it takes a couple of weeks, if we’re lucky, they may take them down. And then, the next day, the scammers launch another one and the onus is on me again. Enough is enough.”
In response to these charges, Facebook sent The Times of Israel the following statement.
“We do not allow adverts which are misleading or false on Facebook and have explained to Martin Lewis that he should report any adverts that infringe his rights and they will be removed. We are in direct contact with his team, offering to help and promptly investigating their requests, and only last week confirmed that several adverts and accounts that violated our Advertising Policies had been taken down.”
Is Facebook a publisher?
Facebook has come under fire in the past several months over allegations it enabled Russian trolls to target Americans with pre-elections messages, as well as over the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.
Lewis’s suit could cause it considerably more discomfort if it leads to a judicial ruling that holds it liable for the material placed on its platform.
“Facebook still claims it’s not a publisher – but Martin Lewis’s court action could be set to change that,” read an April 23 headline in the Independent by deputy managing editor Will Gore.
Gore pointed out that unlike newspapers and other traditional publishers, Facebook is not legally liable for untrue or harmful content that appears on its platform. He predicted this would change as a result of Lewis’s lawsuit and others that may follow.
Journalist Iain Martin echoed this view. “Facebook’s entire business model has rested on the bogus idea that it is not a publisher,” he wrote in the web publication Reaction, “that it is simply a groovy neutral network that connected people in a groovy way. It provided a ‘free’ service, which in reality rested on hoovering up user data and – along with Google – selling it to advertisers, in the process creating the greatest ad business in history. Unlike a traditional publisher, it had no responsibility for what appeared on its pages, it said. The legislation in the US – for now, drafted in the early days of the web – gives it quite a lot of protection. Expect that to change.”
The Times of Israel asked Canadian securities regulator Jason Roy for his response to the allegations in the Martin Lewis lawsuit. He said he would have to learn more about it, but that his general impression is that Facebook is making an effort to abide by its binary options and cryptocurrency ad ban.
“The Canadian Securities Administrators Investment Fraud Task Force and our international partners have worked with Facebook, Google, Apple and others over the last year or more regarding binary options, CFDs, forex and crypto threats and we are pleased with the action they have taken,” he said.
“Fraudsters really never quit committing fraud and they always find ways to adapt. We are aware that will always be the case, and whether they figure out a way to get around the advertising bans or switch to the next scam, they won’t stop and we have to be vigilant. The various social media and tech companies have taken these threats seriously and have acted to protect their users. If there are holes that are being exploited both the regulators and the companies I’ve mentioned will try and patch them.“
Roy added, “Individuals that are being scammed need to report it to their local securities commissions so we are continually aware of the threats, can see how they are changing and can act to protect investors.”