Phone scam
Scam alert Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: Gulf News has cautioned residents against a dodgy get-rich-quick scheme being promoted on an overseas website as a legitimate Gulf News report.

Peddled in an editorial style as a Gulf News article, the crafty advertorial falsely claims that a local businessman has backed a dubious bitcoin investment opportunity.

As it turns out, the fake endorsement is a clickbait to exploit the gullibility of aspiring cryptocurrency investors.

NAT 200510 FAKE MF1-1589089400848
A copy of the fake Gulf News article Image Credit: Screenshot

“The fraudsters have used the Gulf News name to gain credibility. This is not a Gulf News report and we have nothing to do with it. Anyone who invests will be doing so at their own risk,” warned the Gulf News management which has since filed complaints with relevant authorities.

Slipped into an overseas news portal using malvertising attack (see box below), the report falsely claims that Emirati businessman Juma Al Majid appeared on The Dubai Talk Show with host Loubo Siois last week and announced a new “wealth loophole" “which can transform anyone into a millionaire within 3-4 months”.

NAT 200506 MISUSE MF-1589089394289
Louba Siosi, host of The Dubai Talk Show conducted no such interview Image Credit: Supplied

It even has a bogus quote from the prominent businessman describing how Bitcoin Code - a shadowy automated trading software - makes him more money (sic) than any of his ventures.

“Right now my number one money maker is a new crypto currency auto trading programme called Bitcoin Code. It’s the single biggest opportunity I have seen in my entire lifetime to build a small fortune fast. I urge everyone to check this out before the banks shut it down,” Al Majid has been quoted as saying during a television programme with Loubo Siois, executive producer and host of The Dubai Talk Show.

However, Siois, denied conducting any interview with Juma Al Majid. “This is not true. I did not conduct any such interview. I am aghast that my name has been used to promote a shady scheme. I am weighing legal action,” Sious told Gulf News.

NAT 200510 FAKE MF-1589089399128
The misleading article featuring Siosi and Al Majid flooded Facebook news feeds Image Credit: Screenshot

The misleading article featuring him and Juma Al Majid has been flooding the Facebook feeds of unsuspecting UAE residents over the week.

Of late, several high-profile people in the UAE and abroad have been wrongly linked with similar fake advertorials involving binary options, auto-trading and cryptocurrency.

Among them is English reality television judge and producer Simon Cowell. Sometime back it was reported that he has invested £500,000 (Dh2.3 million) of his own capital into autotrading as ‘wealth creation system’.

Another victim Mark Lewis, who founded the consumer site, has sued Facebook for failing to stop the misleading adverts.

The editorial style articles invariably carry names of leading news outlets – BBC in the UK, ARD in Germany and now Gulf News in the UAE.

The “Pre-sale” landing page is designed to build trust with visitors who are then guided to another landing page. This is where the scam happens. Last year, Sharjah based Pakistani banker Roohi Imran lost $21,000 (Dh77,133) on an online trading platform after falling for the racket while browsing a legitimate news website.

“As I was scrolling down the home page, a catchy headline suddenly caught my attention. When I clicked it, I was taken to a page which featured stories about how people were making so much money from online trading that they had quit their jobs. The reports appeared so convincing that I believed them and decided to invest as well. By the time I realised my mistake, it was too late,” said the woman whose misadventure has left her family in a debt spiral.

NAT 200506 MISUSE MF1-1589089396645
Another bogus Dubai report claimed a valet made US$1,280 in a single day Image Credit: Screenshot

“I opened an online account by making an investment of $1,250 but was tricked into putting more and more money in subsequent months,” she recalled.

Four of her children haven’t returned to school since the last summer break because of unpaid fees while the fifth one hasn’t been able to start one as the family has no money. A few days ago a Keralite lost $500 to the scam after falling for a fake news which detailed how a valet attendant at a Dubai hotel made $1,280 in single day afer investing $250 with Bitcoin Evolution.

There are countless variations of the scam but most of them unfold in a similar fashion.

NAT 200510 FAKE MF334-1589089402657
Pakistani Ruhi Imran showing documents after losing Dh77,000 in a dodgy online trading platform Image Credit: Mazhar Farooqui, Gulf News

How the scam unfolds

You are browsing a trusted website when you spot a picture of a celeb under a catchy headline. There’s nothing remotely to suggest it is an advertisement. As you click on it, you are guided to a third party page which describes how the celeb has reaped immense financial benefits by investing in crypto currency, binary options or auto trading. And since the report is accompanied by the logo or name of a credible news agency, you are convinced it’s genuine. At the end of the page, is a web form seeking your interest in joining the scheme.

No sooner have you plugged in your personal details, you are contacted by a fund manager and encouraged to make an initial investment by forking out a small amount towards the purchase of a crypto currency. You then receive a link and login details to the ‘trading platform’ where your crypto currency is being held. Over the next few days the value of your holdings appears to increase, and your investment manager encourages you to buy more. Reassured, you shell out more money. Weeks later, you’ve sunk up to Dh10,000 into the scheme – although your crypto currency is valued at ten times the amount on the trading platform. Flush with joy, you decide to enjoy your returns. So you contact your fund manager who asks to first deposit his commission. You don’t mind giving another Dh5,000 – into his bank account. and wait for him to release your funds. That call never comes.

Need to remain vigilant

Marclino Fernandes, service delivery head of information technology at Gulf News said people need to remain vigilant against cyberattacks.

“Cybercriminals hide in the dark web to remain anonymous as they prey on unsuspecting people all day. They hop from one platform to another just like parasites hop from one host to another,” said Fernandes. “We involve UAE authorities to crack down on them and apply technical controls to keep them at bay,” he added.

What is malvertising?

Malvertising is a type of attack in which a cybercriminal injects malicious code into legitimate online advertising networks. The code typically redirects users to malicious websites.

The attack allows perpetrators to target users on highly reputable websites to reach of millions of unsuspecting visitors with a highly lucrative scam

Circumventing the ban

On January 30, 2018, Facebook banned advertisements for binary options trading as well as for cryptocurrencies and initial coin (ICOs). Google and Twitter announced similar bans in the following weeks. Yet, some advertisers have found ways to circumvent the ban through malvertising.

The UAE’s National Media Council launched Electronic Media Regulations in March 2018 to encourage electronic media outlets to produce reliable content that meets the needs of different audiences. “The guide refers to electronic advertisements in the sphere of social media communication and stresses that all those who carry out advertising activities on a commercial basis need to obtain a prior licence from the council,” said the NMC. “The council continues to be a part of meaningful efforts to maintain a practical framework to protect the public from advertisements that do not comply with the applicable standards.”

Last year Facebook and Instagram issued a statement to Gulf News saying they take illegal content incredibly seriously. “We are investing heavily in our security and content review teams, as well as smart technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to make both platforms a safer place for everyone,” the statement said,

“In many ways, we face sophisticated adversaries who continually challenge tactics to circumvent our controls, which means we must continuously build and adapt our efforts,” it added.