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Facebook and Washington state sue alleged 'likejackers'

New lawsuits describe Adscend Media as a "lifejacker" that dupes Facebook users into "liking" links that redirect them to ads.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
3 min read
Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot announce suits against alleged "likejacking" scammers at a Seattle press conference. Jay Greene/CNET

SEATTLE--Facebook and the Washington state attorney general have filed separate suits against an alleged "likejacking" firm accused of tricking users into "liking" sites that then pay the likejacker for the click referrals.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna said this morning in a press conference at Facebook's Seattle office that he believes Adscend Media LLC--a self-described "performance-based marketing network"--has generated $20 million a year from the actions.

Neither the attorney general nor Facebook has contacted Adscend to discuss the allegations.

"They are big. They are pernicious," said Assistant Attorney General Paula Selis, who heads the office's Consumer Protection High-Tech Unit. "They know they've been breaking the law for a while."

Adscend didn't immediately reply to a request for comment. On its Web site, the company notes that its goal is "to help all of our partners succeed, and to deliver the best service possible. We hold ourselves to the highest of standards so that we can exceed your expectations."

Likejacking is not new. The term emerged almost two years ago as a modification of the neologism "clickjacking," which describes a similar Internet scourge.

In likejacking scams, users are tricked into clicking links that then mark a site as one they "like" on their Facebook news feed. That, in turn, lures friends of that user to click the link as well, putting the site in their news feeds as well, creating a viral cycle.

"They are misleading you [into] thinking you are getting a message from a friend," Selis said.

One of these alleged Facebook scams includes a Facebook post that offers the promise of a salacious video of an ex-girlfriend. When a user clicks on the post, a window opens seeking "Age Verification" that users need to click on to proceed. But it's a trick. When users click on the link, they link gets shared in their news feed. And then users are also redirected to an Adscend advertiser site, for which the company receives money.

"This is really at the heart of Adscend's advertising model," Selis said.

The attorney general said its not clear whether Adscend's clients are aware of the alleged activities. Often, large advertisers contract with ad buying agencies for ad buys that cover a range of products from television, billboards and online ads. Those intermediary firms turn to Adscend and the large companies may not know about Adscend's alleged tactics.

"They may not," McKenna said. "They can be victimized as well."

For Facebook, the scam is particularly pernicious. It undermines the service, giving users less reason to trust content they see on the social network.

"Most people would not recognize that this is not a Facebook product. That's why we don't like these," Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot said.

The company said the browser vulnerability that is being exploited in this case has been fixed. But Ullyot notes that scammers are a industrious bunch. Other threats may emerge.

"It's a constant arms battle," Ullyot said.

The attorney general's lawsuit was filed this morning in U.S. District Court in Seattle against Delaware-based Adscend and its co-owners, Jeremy Bash of Huntington, W. Va., and Fehzan Ali, of Austin, Tex. It alleges, among other things, violations of the CAN-SPAM Act, which makes it unlawful to procure or initiate the transmission of misleading commercial electronic communications. The suit seeks to enjoin the defendants from future violations, award damages and impose civil penalties, costs and fees.

Facebook filed a separate suit this morning against Adscend and its owners in federal court in the Northern District of California.