The ad caught Gordon Turner’s eye immediately. It was an official-looking online video encouraging viewers to apply for the “Senior Booster Program,” which entitled those 65 and older to government-issued payments of $1,728. For Turner, a 77-year-old Texan on disability benefits who lives alone and financially supports his elderly mother, that kind of cash could go a long way. So he clicked the ad’s link right away to input his personal information, and he waited.
Unfortunately for Turner — and the more than 10 million others who’ve viewed this video — no such program exists, and no check will be coming in the mail. Behind the Google ad, and hundreds of others like it, is 1111 LLC, a little-known affiliate marketing company run by a former pro MMA fighter from the Canadian prairies. The firm, which also operates a network of pro-Trump news sites and MAGA merch e-shops, has quietly erupted into one of Google’s top-performing and highest-spending political advertisers.
1111 LLC has pumped out a deluge of slickly produced videos via Google ads in recent months that promote entirely fabricated government handouts: $38,070 in tuition funding for individuals without college degrees through the “Government Education Program”; $2,888 for seniors in “certain zip codes” through the “ACA Plus Program”; $97,246 for homeowners through the “Homeowner Relief” program; $710 for drivers without DUIs through the “SODA Program”; among others.
Many of these ads are designed to look like news segments, with miscontextualized footage of President Joe Biden at his desk appearing to sign documents related to the bogus payouts. Some ads even display falsified CNBC articles with headlines restating the ads’ hoaxes. They have collectively been viewed well over 100 million times in a matter of months, according to public Google data, sparking false hope in an untold number of households nationwide as the coronavirus pandemic drags into its third calendar year.
“I really believed it. This one was convincing,” Turner said of the “Senior Booster Program.” Since giving out his contact information through the ad’s link, he said, the only thing he has gotten is a barrage of calls and emails from spammers trying to cheat him out of his money.
1111 LLC’s ads are part of a sprawling scheme to drive web traffic and harvest people’s personal details, including their phone numbers and emails, which may be sent directly to the marketing firm’s clients to do with as they please (like financially prey on the elderly), or may be rented out and sold as information lists for big money.
Shady companies fleecing people online is a story as old as the internet, but what’s noteworthy in this ruse is Google’s complicity. The tech behemoth has pocketed more than $2.2 million from 1111 LLC since September to run ads that cruelly con its own users while flagrantly violating its own policies — and, experts say, federal law.
Over the past five months, when 1111 LLC suddenly started outspending many of Google’s most prolific political advertisers — including Donald Trump’s Save America PAC — not a single one of its ads was audited and taken down. It wasn’t until Tuesday, after HuffPost had reached out to inquire about 1111 LLC, that Google finally pulled the ads.
Over a series of exchanges, a Google spokesperson pointedly declined to answer if 1111 LLC would be allowed to purchase ads again in the future.
“It’s just mind-blowing that on a platform like Google — which portrays itself as having gone above and beyond with ad transparency — you can pop up out of nowhere and run millions of dollars of blatant scam ads without raising any red flags,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the nonprofit Accountable Tech.
“It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence as we head toward another election season,” Lehrich added. “If something this brazen can somehow go unnoticed, what’s stopping someone from [running ads] pushing targeted disinformation to suppress votes in swing states?”
‘A Killing To Be Made’
1111 LLC is registered to Chad Hamzeh, a Calgary, Alberta, native and former pro MMA fighter who now lives in San Diego, according to public records. In media interviews and podcasts, Hamzeh has described how in 2008 he and his wife moved to Thailand, where he kickboxed full-time and taught himself affiliate marketing on the side. After returning home a year later with a baby on the way and $20,000 in debt, he said, he decided to pursue advertising as a career and managed to get himself back in the black with a single ad campaign that netted $45,000 in profit in under two months.
From there, Hamzeh quickly became somewhat of a legend in the field, with one online publication declaring him the “most straight forward authority on the web when it comes to paid traffic” who “has made it brutally apparent that there is a killing to be made in paid traffic if you know what you are doing.”
DSV2 Media, a marketing company Hamzeh founded in 2009, has a waiting list of clients and “manages an average of $500,000+ monthly in campaign traffic with a strong ROI,” according to a website that interviewed him in 2020. (An unverified job board listing suggests that DSV2 Media has simply rebranded as 1111 LLC.)
Since leaving his fighting career behind, Hamzeh has launched and helped lead a string of scattered businesses selling all kinds of things, from digital marketing training books to dietary supplements and car shining products. Among them was Revive You Media LLC, also known as 1806369 Alberta Limited, which last year pleaded guilty to engaging in deceptive marketing practices and was fined $15 million following an investigation by the Canadian Competition Bureau. As CEO of that company, Hamzeh was personally banned under Alberta’s Consumer Protection Act from taking part in “‘misleading and deceiving’ advertising for any and all products sold and marketed.”
“Generally, the harvesting of data is just the first step in a scheme to part consumers with their hard-earned cash.”
– Bonnie Patten, executive director of Truth in Advertising
Remarkably, the MMA fighter-turned-international grifter has so far managed to avoid public scrutiny. Press coverage of Hamzeh consists only of glowing profiles and interviews about his success as an entrepreneur. He has done an impressive job of distancing his name from his more shadowy business ventures, including 1111 LLC, which has no website, no social media pages and essentially no digital footprint — despite its hefty ad buys. (In interviews about DSV2 Media, Hamzeh has stated that most of his clients prefer to remain anonymous, and that “you won’t see us really marketing our agency.”)
Hamzeh did not respond to HuffPost’s phone calls or to a list of questions sent to his email and LinkedIn account.
As he well knows, paid traffic and data harvesting can be extremely lucrative, as evidenced by his firm’s multimillion-dollar investment in Google ads designed to do just that. When people like Turner surrender their phone numbers, emails and other personal information through 1111 LLC’s ad links in hopes of receiving government handouts, it appears that their data is sent to a variety of different websites, which then spam them and try to rip them off. Turner estimates that he now receives as many as seven spam calls per day, and that his email is so inundated with predatory solicitations that he no longer checks his inbox.
“Generally, the harvesting of data is just the first step in a scheme to part consumers with their hard-earned cash — and very effectively,” said Bonnie Patten, executive director of the nonprofit Truth in Advertising. “Especially now, with an elevated desperation because of the pandemic, I think these kinds of campaigns are actually more effective than ever.”
In 2021, in a LinkedIn job listing for 1111 LLC, Hamzeh wrote that “last year alone we sent out over 1.2 Billion e-mails, all [business-to-consumer], to our e-mail database at the time of over 1 million subscribers.”
Hamzeh did not respond to questions about whether 1111 LLC harvests people’s information on behalf of its clients, for their use only, or if it is directly selling this data to outside buyers, such as political campaigns, or both. This practice, known as list building, has played a substantial but under-acknowledged role in the spread of online disinformation, driven by marketers using clickbait falsehoods to lure people into handing over their personal details. The return on investment from list building can be huge, especially in the political space; a list of emails can go for millions of dollars.
Regardless of how 1111 LLC is making money, what it’s doing is almost certainly illegal, said Patten. The Federal Trade Commission Act outlaws “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce,” with “deceptive” defined as “likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.”
In simpler terms, commercial advertisers aren’t allowed to lie to consumers.
So, why did 1111 LLC decide to do it anyway? There are a couple of probable explanations. First, the chances of getting caught were very low. Unlike television and radio ads, for example, digital ads on platforms such as Google can be selectively micro-targeted and are therefore less likely to catch the attention of advertising watchdogs. Furthermore, in the case of 1111 LLC’s video ads promoting fake government handouts, consumers may not even realize they’ve been duped, so they’re less likely to report the ads to state attorneys general or federal agencies.
Second, even if the FTC were to investigate 1111 LLC’s advertising practices, the resulting penalty — if anything — would probably be no more than a slap on the wrist. With the responsibility of monitoring marketing across the entire U.S. economy, the FTC simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to go after every scam, Patten noted, adding that the FTC Act, which is the commission’s primary statute, doesn’t even enable it to fine a company for deceptive advertising in most cases. Instead, 1111 LLC would likely be issued a cease and desist warning.
The FTC declined to comment directly on 1111 LLC’s ads. A spokesperson said the agency is committed to protecting not only people’s money but their information as well.
“The low risk of getting caught is just a cost of doing business that [1111 LLC] isn’t concerned about,” Patten suspects, because “they’re probably making so much money on the data they’re collecting.”
Big Profits For Google
The vast majority of Google’s revenue comes from its ads, which brought in more than $200 billion for the first time last year — more than any other company in the world — up from $147 billion in 2020. Despite widespread concern that the company has prioritized growth and profits over people, leaving its users vulnerable to the malicious activity thriving in its blind spots, Google has maintained that it has its ad juggernaut under control.
“We want people to trust the ads they see on our platform and we have strict policies that prohibit clickbait ads designed to drive traffic to sites or ads that mislead users about the service being offered,” a Google spokesperson told HuffPost. “We’re also constantly working to improve our enforcement systems to catch and prevent abuse.”
Google uses a combination of automated systems and human review to enforce its ad policies, which led to the blocking or removal of more than 101 million ads under Google’s misrepresentation policy last year, the spokesperson said. He did not answer questions about how 1111 LLC’s hundreds of plainly dishonest ads slipped through the cracks and managed to go unnoticed for months while accumulating tens of millions of views.
“We’ve reviewed the ads in question and have taken appropriate action against those that violate our policies,” the spokesperson said.
Even though it has facilitated and profited off a massive, brazenly predatory financial scheme that experts believe is illegal, Google faces no liability for running 1111 LLC’s ads.
“We want people to trust the ads they see on our platform.”
– A Google spokesperson
Google and other online intermediaries are shielded from legal responsibility for user-generated content, including ads, by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Critics argue that the 1996 law has led many of these platforms to take a lax approach to vetting and moderating the ads they host, at the expense of their users. In turn, this has fostered a powerful sense of impunity among scammers, whose business models rely upon the platforms’ unwillingness or inability to enforce their own policies.
1111 LLC has also advertised on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, though at a much smaller scale than its Google ads operation. It has spent more than $20,000 to run ads through a pro-Trump Facebook page with not even 1,000 “likes” called American Truth, for which it is listed as the owner. American Truth owns a network of other right-wing websites, according to its “About” section, including ConservativeSociety.org, American Merch Mall, Freedom Shop 2024 and the American Truth Newsletter. These entities publish “Real News For Real Patriots” and sell anti-Biden merchandise, which 1111 LLC promotes through its American Truth ads.
Like their Google counterparts, the 1111 LLC-sponsored Facebook ads also deceive consumers. One ad, marketing a “free” hat with the text “Let’s Go Brandon,” leads to the website for American Merch Mall, which prominently features made-up product endorsements from The Hill, Newsmax and Military.com.
On the purchase page is a pre-checked box to buy 10 hats for $4.95 each. Another ad, promoting the same hat, leads to the Freedom Shop 2024 website, which displays the same phony endorsements and gives buyers three options for their “free” item: one hat for $19.95; two hats for $29.95; or a hat, a flag and four stickers for $39.95.
Meta prohibits ads that contain “deceptive, false, or misleading claims.” So far, though, days after being reached for comment by HuffPost, it has yet to take action against any of 1111 LLC’s American Truth ads, according to publicly accessible Facebook and Instagram data. A spokesperson said the company is “looking into” the ads.
A Lack Of Accountability
In the U.K., lawmakers are pushing for tech platforms that carry scam ads to bear financial responsibility and to reimburse victims.
“Online platforms are hosting this stuff, not really putting enough effort into weeding it out, and indeed financially benefiting because they’re getting the advertising revenues,” MP Mel Stride, chairman of the cross-party Treasury Committee, told Reuters earlier this month. “The government should look at some kind of arrangement that makes the polluter pay.”
In the U.S., without any solid framework for platform accountability in this space, Big Tech ad networks will remain a haven for bad actors, said Lehrich, who called Google and Facebook “a massive gift to scammers.”
Both companies have repeatedly and vehemently defended their commitments to transparency in advertising. They often cite as evidence the existence of their ad libraries, which publicly catalog certain ads along with limited insights into spending, targeting and viewership data.
“It’s just mind-blowing that … you can pop up out of nowhere and run millions of dollars of blatant scam ads without raising any red flags.”
– Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech
But, as the 1111 LLC case illustrates, this doesn’t fully remedy the lack of accountability for ad content. Advertisers are still granted considerable anonymity; Hamzeh’s name, for example, is not listed by either platform alongside 1111 LLC’s ads. It’s easy to see how advertisers can hide behind pop-up companies with vague and commonly used names, like “1111 LLC,” to run harmful ads that might not ever be traced back to them.
With the platforms themselves protected by Section 230, and advertisers free to pay for content promotion from the shadows, there’s often no one to be held responsible for potential damage caused by their ads. And the damage can be extraordinary.
Ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency paid to use targeted social media ads to sow partisan division, very successfully, which is what ultimately led to the creation of Meta and Google’s ad libraries in response to pressure from Congress. The bipartisan Honest Ads Act, introduced in 2017, would have further increased transparency disclosure requirements for online political ads, but it stalled in the Senate.
Since then, purveyors of election-related falsehoods have only become more sophisticated, as have the ad-targeting abilities they’re afforded by online ad platforms.
With that in mind, Lehrich warned, 1111 LLC’s ability to openly leverage Google ads for well beyond 100 million views of its outrageous disinformation, without raising the slightest suspicion, is cause for serious concern — not just for consumers, but for democracy.