Seven U.S. senators are demanding to know why Facebook facilitated and profited off a multimillion-dollar ad operation that conned people into believing they could purchase concealed-carry gun permits online.
In response to a recent HuffPost investigation into Concealed Online — the California-based company behind the scam and one of Facebook’s highest-spending political advertisers — Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) sent a letter expressing their “deep concern” to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Monday.
“Facebook’s efforts at political advertising transparency have fallen short,” the senators wrote, adding that the tech giant “has become complicit in the public safety risks these ads pose.”
Concealed Online has paid Facebook more than $6.4 million to run tens of thousands of ads tricking people into believing that a legal loophole lets them qualify for and download concealed-carry permits online. The firm actually sells handgun safety certificates rather than legitimate permits, and it runs an elaborate scheme on Facebook to hide that fact.
Concealed Online’s ad blitz has created a dangerous situation in which misinformed buyers could unwittingly end up carrying concealed weapons illegally, law enforcement experts told HuffPost.
The senators echoed this concern to Zuckerberg.
Facebook users are “at risk of believing this certificate is, in fact, a concealed-carry permit. Relying on this erroneous belief, they could carry concealed weapons in public when they have neither the proper safety training nor the requisite permit to do so,” the letter says.
Concealed Online exploits a Virginia law that lets nonresidents apply for concealed-carry permits after completing a safety training online. Through its website, it gives its customers the video training and a test, then charges them up to $130 for a certificate of completion. After seeing ads showing photos of permit cards alongside text such as “INSTANT DOWNLOAD” and “START CARRYING LEGALLY TODAY,” however, many customers don’t realize that they still have to apply to Virginia authorities for the actual permit, which is valid only in states with reciprocity laws.
But the scheme goes far beyond misleading advertising.
HuffPost’s investigation found that Concealed Online has built two versions of its website: one for people arriving there directly and another far less transparent version for people routed there by the company’s Facebook ads.
Of 50 ads launched in October, more than 1 in 3 contained links enabling people to bypass either critical caveats (including the fact that the certificate is not a permit), the safety training that’s required by law, or both. Nearly 1 in 5 of the ads — which have been viewed millions of times — featured a shareable link taking people directly from Facebook to a checkout page with the message, “Congratulations! You PASSED!” where they’re told to fill in their billing information in 15 minutes or less to get their certificates.
After being contacted by HuffPost, however, Facebook determined that the ads with a shareable link leading straight to a checkout page do violate its policy against “unacceptable business practices.” It has since taken action against some — but not all — of those ads. As of Monday, more than two weeks after HuffPost published its initial investigation, there are still dozens of Concealed Online ads in Facebook’s ad library that contain the direct-checkout links — and that Facebook has yet to take action against.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this latest article.
HuffPost also found that Concealed Online has used Facebook’s geo-targeting ad technology to specifically reach people in states that don’t honor Virginia’s nonresident permit, with language such as “Carry Legally in Your State.” If a customer were to carry a concealed weapon there with a Concealed Online certificate or Virginia permit instead of the proper local license, they would be breaking the law.
Following HuffPost’s investigation, Facebook has also taken down some — but again, not all — of those geo-targeted ads.
It’s unclear just how many Facebook users living in states that don’t recognize Virginia’s nonresident permits have been duped by the company, though scores of the firm’s customers have complained that they were fooled. It’s also unclear how many people in eligible states have used their certificates to obtain concealed-carry permits without ever completing the legally required safety training.
As with its many other political advertisers, Facebook does not require Concealed Online to publicly disclose who, exactly, is behind its ad campaign. As such, there’s no real way to hold them accountable for running a massive scam.
In a series of emails, Concealed Online repeatedly declined to tell HuffPost who owns the company and insisted that its service “far-exceeds industry standards” and that its website is “upfront and transparent in all funnels.”
So for now, without any real regulation or oversight, Facebook will continue to profit off opportunistic grifters exploiting its weak policies at the expense of its users.
Read HuffPost’s investigation here.
UPDATE: Nov. 26 — Facebook sent a statement to HuffPost following the publication of this article.
“Over the past few weeks we continued to investigate this advertiser and found them in further violation of our policies that prohibit promoting products or services that use deceptive and misleading practices that may scam people out of money,” it said. “We have taken additional steps to restrict their ability to advertise on Facebook.”
As of this writing, Facebook has yet to take action against dozens of Concealed Online’s direct-checkout ads that remain in its ad library.