Face mask price-gougers set up a black market on Facebook and Instagram using anonymous profiles
- Facebook, Instagram's parent company, is no longer permitting advertisements or commerce listings for face masks, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, or COVID-19 test kits.
- But some users are creating anonymous, personal profiles on both platforms to price gouge items like face masks, and many are ripping stock images and photos from other websites to do so.
- Business Insider found one Facebook profile friend requesting others to try and sell masks, along with Instagram and Facebook pages marketing expensive, unverifiable products.
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As a global shortage of face masks threatens medical professionals in hospitals and treatment centers, a black market for them has emerged on Facebook and Instagram, where people are creating anonymous personal profiles to price gouge the masks and sell them to unsuspecting social media users. And unlike third-party Amazon sellers or hand sanitizer hoarders, it's unclear whether these face masks even exist, since many of the sellers are using stock photos and imagery ripped from other websites.
On March 6, Facebook announced it was temporarily banning advertisements and commerce listings, like those on Facebook Marketplace, for medical face masks. On March 19, it announced the same policy for hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes, and COVID-19 test kits - all items that brought potential price-gouging and scamming amid panic-buying - in ads and commerce listings.
Business Insider found multiple profiles on both Facebook and Instagram advertising expensive face masks outside the social media platform's e-commerce listings or advertisements. The profiles don't provide verification that the masks exist, let alone fulfill the coronavirus prevention claims made in posts.
After Business Insider reached out to Facebook, Instagram's parent company, with the profiles in this article, each of the profiles were removed. Facebook says it removed the three Instagram accounts between the time the reporting started and the time Business Insider reached out.
Some of the Facebook profiles selling face masks are sending friend requests to other users, listing contact information like phone numbers in their profile descriptions. Business Insider texted one of these profiles, and the seller said payment could be transferred via Cash App, Google Pay, or through Walmart's online money transfer system.
The person, whose Facebook profile identified them as "Itz Dolly," also sent three photos of the masks they claim to be selling for $15 each - two of the photos could be traced back to other websites via a reverse Google Image search.
Of the three photos of masks sent by "Itz Dolly," the only identifiable mask brand was a 3M disposable respiratory mask. Before the mask shortage, Home Depot sold a 20-pack for $23.97, or about $1.20 per mask.
When asked if they would be willing to do an interview with Business Insider about selling face masks through Facebook, the user stopped responding to texts and appears to have hidden or deactivated their Facebook profile.
"Itz Dolly" isn't the only personal profile being used to advertise face masks for sale. Business Insider found another person shilling face masks on both their personal profile and a business profile they connected to it.
That user also set up a page branded as a "Medical Lab" under the name "Covid-19 masks for purchase," using stock imagery of N95 masks in promotional posts, then posted conflicting photos and videos of standard surgical masks being mass-produced. The page also linked an email address that could be contacted for purchase.
According to the CDC, the surgical masks shown in the photos and videos are not considered respiratory protection, while N95 masks filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles.
By setting up advertisements masquerading as personal and professional Facebook pages, as well as personal Instagram accounts, it appears that individuals are still able to price gouge and mislead potential buyers through both social media platforms. Facebook's Trust/Integrity team leader said "If we see abuse around these products in organic posts, we'll remove those, too," but many accounts seem to be slipping past enforcement systems in the meantime.
Online storefronts advertising on Instagram and Facebook use stock imagery and product photos ripped from other websites
One Instagram profile, "@covidhalfmask," started posting on March 17. It avoided using the word "coronavirus" or the disease's full identifier, "covid-19," but had an easily recognizable picture of the virus' molecular form as a profile icon.
With nearly 18,000 followers, but averaging fewer than 35 likes a post, it appears the account also bought followers and likes on its then most-recent photos to create an illusion of better engagement - making it look more trustworthy to casual Instagram users. The description warned that "The stock is limited!"
By clicking on the link in the profile's description, potential buyers were directed to a Shopify storefront, where they could pay "discounted" prices for packs of masks ranging from $74.99 for 10 "N95 " masks to $199.99 for a 15-pack of "3M 9162E" masks. A reverse Google Image search shows the product images were ripped from other websites.
The New York Times reports that Shopify "allows just about anyone with an email address and a credit card to create retail websites in short order," and that 500 new storefronts have been registered with the keywords "corona" and "covid" over the past two months. The "Half-Mask" site avoided those keywords altogether.
The storefront also had a review section, where 61 five-star reviews are listed. Several of the reviews contained pictures ripped from other websites, as determined by a reverse Google Image search, and at least one was a stock image.
While Facebook removed the storefront's Instagram profile, its corresponding website was still functioning before Business Insider reached out to Shopify. The site has since gone down.
"Our teams continue to actively review COVID-19 related products and businesses, and stores that violate our policies will be immediately taken down. Over the past two weeks, we have closed more than 5,000 stores in our COVID-19 related reviews," a Shopify spokesperson wrote in a statement provided to Business Insider.
Other Instagram profiles with handles like "@coronasafetymask" and "@hygienic_mask_covid19" asked potential customers to DM them, or click or a link that contained a QR code that could be used to contact someone through the messaging app LINE. "@coronasafetymask" used a photo of actress Emma Watson with a mask overlay as branding.
"We are working to protect people from inflated prices and predatory behavior, if we see posts and accounts selling masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits, we will remove them," a Facebook company spokesperson wrote in a statement to Business Insider.