TikTok ads have pushed scams about apps, diet pills, other products, report says

The ads have appeared on the front page of the short-form video app. TikTok said it took down the ads after Tenable shared its findings.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Queenie Wong
3 min read

TikTok has more than 689 million monthly active users worldwide. 

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Scammers are purchasing ads on TikTok , the popular short-video app, to promote fake mobile apps, diet pills and other bogus products and services, according to a report released by cybersecurity company Tenable on Thursday.

The findings highlight the challenges facing TikTok as companies such as Microsoft , Walmart and Oracle consider purchasing a stake in the app, which could be banned in the US this month if its Chinese parent company ByteDance doesn't sell its US operations. The Trump administration recently issued two executive orders targeting TikTok, citing concerns that the app could be used by the Chinese government to spy on US government employees. TikTok has filed a lawsuit challenging the administration's upcoming ban and says it wouldn't send US user data to the Chinese government even if it were asked to do so. 

"TikTok truly is the Wild West of social media," wrote Tenable research engineer Satnam Narang in the nearly 50-page report on TikTok scams. "The platform raises myriad concerns for a prospective US owner." 

TikTok said it removed the ads identified in the report after Tenable shared their findings. 

"TikTok has strict policies to protect users from fake, fraudulent, or misleading content, including ads. Advertiser accounts and ad content are held to these policies and must follow our Community Guidelines, Advertising Guidelines, and Terms of Service," a spokeswoman for TikTok said in a statement. The spokeswoman didn't say how many people viewed these ads, but she said the company has "measures in place to detect and remove fraudulent ads."

Narang outlined several different types of TikTok scams that appeared in ads that were featured on the front page of the app, which is called "For You." The page features videos based on a user's interests and activity on the app. 

In one ad, scammers claim users can earn "$433 Per Day Playing Games." When users click on this ad, they're redirected to the Apple App Store where they are asked to download an app that's really masquerading as another app. For example, an app called Super Expense is an app called iMoney, the report stated. Other apps used to conceal iMoney include DaysTaker, CanEnrich, OlMoneing and Minemalist part-time. To earn money, users are asked to download apps and leave them open for three minutes or complete other tasks such as leaving positive reviews for Amazon products. Some users have complained they haven't received any money for completing the tasks. Users were also asked to provide personal information such as a photo of their driver's license on the iMoney app. 

"We speculate that when users perform one of these tasks, they are lining the pockets of the iMoney developers, who are using what's called an offerwall to promote various apps and are paid an undisclosed sum of money in exchange for getting users to install these apps," according to the report.

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In other TikTok ads, scammers used fake news articles that falsely claimed to be from CNN and Fox News to make it seem as if celebrities are promoting certain diet pills. Users are asked to provide their address and payment information to receive a "free" bottle of diet pills. Once they hand over this information, they're enrolled in a trial program that costs $90 if they don't cancel within 14 days. Scammers also earn money every time a user takes an action resulting from their marketing.

Scammers have also used TikTok ads to dupe people into buying knock-off or overpriced goods or signing up for questionable credit repair and tuition assistance services, according to the report. In some cases, users complained online that they received the incorrect item after ordering a product they saw featured in a TikTok ad.

This isn't the first time Tenable has spotted scams on TikTok. Last year, the same researcher found scams on the short-form video app that involved directing users to adult dating sites, impersonating popular users and boosting likes and followers. A TikTok spokeswoman at the time said they pulled down the accounts referenced in the report.

"TikTok users would do well to be skeptical of many of the advertisements on the platform, because at the end of the day, they're not always what they appear to be," Narang wrote in the latest report. Scammers have also used other social networks including Facebook and its photo service Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to trick users.

As of July, TikTok has more than 689 million monthly active users worldwide.