Law-makers and social media behemoth Facebook are being urged to act against a plague of bogus advertisements for sham-health products, stealing the identities of prominent doctors.
Top epidemiologist Michael Baker has been caught up in a deep fake scheme – where his likeness has been used by nefarious players to sell “Blood Balance” capsules, which claim to cure almost all chronic diseases.
The ads depict an AI engineered Baker speaking directly to the camera, telling would-be customers to purchase the pills to “clean out” their blood vessels, and not to “kill their hearts” with chemotherapy.
Baker said he has been contacted by roughly 30 people, either alerting him to the impersonation – or notifying him that they had bought the product.
“At least a third of them had been scammed. They’d sent money off, and it was typically $340 dollars for five containers of these pills. I advised them as soon as possible to try and get a refund,” he said.
One such customer sent him a bottle, so he could check-out the product using his name and reputation.
“The active ingredients are basically plant extracts of various sorts. Cinnamon bark extract and powder, juniper berry powder, bitter melon powder.
“I’m assuming it’s unlikely the pills will hurt people – but I can’t guarantee that, because I don’t know what’s in the containers,” he said.
However, Baker said he’s deeply concerned about advice given in the adverts to stop taking regular medications, which are known to work extremely well.
He’s not alone in being impersonated by the “Blood Balance” brand.
- Covid-19 expert Michael Baker's image used in internet scam
- Top University calling in the lawyers over ‘gravely concerning’ Bloomfield scam
Last week, Newstalk ZB revealed former Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield’s likeness was used in an advert by the company – which ended up on Stuff’s website.
The University of Auckland, where Bloomfield works as a Professor in the School of Population Health, said it has sought legal advice on action it can take when an academic’s reputation is misrepresented by fake quotes and images.
Baker is calling for better regulation to protect consumers online, and has been working with NetSafe to have the ads pulled down from Facebook and Instagram.
But the online safety charity’s chief executive Brent Carey said often, as soon as people report the ads and they are removed, the content goes back up.
“They’re changing one or two things in the ads and then they’re able to reappear. That is where it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle. The scammers always seem to be one step ahead. We need to take some technical tools to this,” he said.
Carey said there needs to be more joined up co-ordination between Government agencies to deal with these sorts of scams.
“Having a code of practice for social media and adverts would be a good place to start. We’re seeing false ads right across different platforms.”
Minister of Internal Affairs Brooke van Velden said any choice to regulate would need to be balanced with the risk of unintended consequences, and how effective the regulation will be in addressing the issue.
In a statement, she said she would observe how other countries successfully deal with these same issues.
Prime Minister Chris Luxon appears to be open to looking into further regulation of online material - including around AI, extremist content and child pornography.
“New Zealand is part of the global bodies which are working together on these issues, each with different topics and orientations,” he said.
NetSafe’s Brent Carey said social media companies also have a responsibility for the ads on their platforms.
“They need to do more to verify accounts. They should be updating help advice for users and doing more proactive searches through their ad libraries to weed out these sorts of scam ads.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Facebook owner Meta said scammers are constantly finding new ways to deceive people.
They said the company use technology such as new machine learning techniques, and specially trained reviewers to identify and action content and accounts that violate its policies.
“We partner with local organisations to educate consumers to spot and avoid scams and bring enforcement action against scammers. We also encourage people to use our in-app reporting tools when they see any suspicious activity,” they said.
Meta reported it removed 827 million fake accounts globally, in the third quarter of 2023.
Demelza Jackson is a political reporter, based at Parliament in Wellington. She joined Newstalk ZB in 2019 and specialised in climate and environment issues, before moving to the Press Gallery in 2023.
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