Google is spoon-feeding fake “Shark Tank approved” weight loss gummy candies to innocent people — and making money doing it. The search giant’s monopoly power in the ad industry apparently lets them profit off allowing scam ads to flourish, with no consequences.
Mark Cuban and a Shark Tank producer spoke to us about how Google’s lax adherence to its own policies hurts innocent people, the Shark Tank brand, and the reputations of the sharks themselves.
Before Christmas, Check My Ads cofounder Nandini Jammi got scammed by a fake shoe ad. When she later riffed on Cuban's frustrations with online advertising, he reached out and asked us to look into a similar scam with fake Shark Tank keto gummies.
“I get heartbreaking emails from people who ask me why they don’t work. How they are overweight and really trusted my brand or the Shark Tank brand when they made the purchase,” he told Check My Ads.
In some cases these scam companies continue charging their victims after the fact, putting more financial strain on their victims who often cannot afford them, he added. “It’s just awful and it’s been going on for years now.”
We analyzed the page 1 results for the keywords "shark tank keto,” looking at 22 sponsored links and non-sponsored search results, and found Google enabling scammers in four ways:
These scams have a cost beyond the financial. They can damage brands, general trust, and most importantly, people. Google has let thousands become victims of this scam for too long.
The first four “search” results that greeted us when we searched for “shark tank keto” weren’t a warning from the FTC about fake endorsements. Or a USA Today story that Google itself breaks out into a fact check.
Instead, it was sponsored results that said things like, “Top 5 Shark Tank Keto Gummies” and “Keto As Seen On Shark Tank.” Results that Google gets paid for if someone clicks the link.
Google knows this is a problem, telling the Washington Post — in 2022 — that it was trying to address scam ads. A spokesperson said the company increased advertiser verification processes and their capacity to detect and remove coordinated scams.
In 2021, Google blocked or removed “38.1 million ads for ‘misrepresentation’ and 58.9 million ads for violating its financial services policies, both before and after they ran,” the spokesman told the Washington Post.
That may sound like a lot, but it’s minuscule for a company that serves trillions of ads a month, according to marketing company WordStream. How many ads is Google failing to catch? Does “verification” even do anything? Because many of the scam advertisers we found actually were verified by Google.
We documented sponsored scam posts from Malta-based Noventa Ventures Ltd., Arizona-based Sapphire Media Group LLC, and Spain-based Kravio Rocket S.L. — all verified.
Google says “we will pause your account immediately … if we suspect your ads violate our Google Ads policies, including misleading representation.” It seems their definition of “immediate” is somewhat different from most people’s.
Because we reported these advertisers to Google in mid-December. On Jan. 18, they were still running scam ads. Here’s some of Kravio Rocket’s inventory as of Jan. 18, as seen in the Google Ads Transparency center.
But even if someone avoids clicking sponsored posts, scammers have other ways of popping up in Google search results.
Google says that its algorithm emphasizes sites it considers trustworthy, such as ones from governments and universities. So it’s no surprise that scammers find ways to exploit that fact to appear higher in search results.
The first non-sponsored result for “shark tank keto” appears to be an article on the University of Pittsburgh’s website — right above a legitimate result warning of the scam.
Yet the University of Pittsburgh page isn’t actually viewable — if you go to the address directly (https://psychiatry.pitt.edu/fAHmgXG-wxaWd/anzr-bs-funex-gnax-xrgb-doCYI-thzzvrf), you get a message saying “the requested page could not be found.”
But what happens when you click the search result?
You’re taken to an imposter CBS News site hawking keto gummies, but this time using a photoshopped image of Kelly Clarkson.
Why is Google indexing pages on legitimate sites that you can’t access but that still manage to send you to a site to swindle you? And then placing these nonexistent sites as the top search result, above warnings of the very scam Google is presenting to you as legitimate?
And thanks to Google, even if you click on one of the sponsored Shark Tank keto links and don’t buy anything, you’re still helping the scammers build a better mousetrap.
Eight of the sponsored search result sites we analyzed, including todayshealthreviews.com, topverifiedreveiws.com, and sharp-reviews.com, use Google Analytics or Tag Manager. They’re powerful tools that let sites track and better shape the ads and content driving people to their sites.
This helps them maximize their ad spend, getting the most bang for their buck (which, in this case, is fleecing people lured in by the promise of Shark Tank-approved weight loss drugs).
Shark Tank keto scammers are also using another Google tool to make money without ever actually selling anything — AdSense.
Unscrupulous operators set up what are called Made For Advertising (MFA) sites. They’re sites designed to look good to search engines and pull in money through running ads when people visit them.
And when it’s Google placing those ads on MFA sites — like we found on MFA sites including onlymyhealth.com — it’s Google getting a cut of advertiser dollars to serve the ads.
We even found an MFA site in our sponsored search results for Shark Tank keto. That means Google could get paid at least two times for scam sites: Once when we clicked on the sponsored link, and again when the target site loaded ads. And if we were to click on the ads on the MFA site? Google would pay the scammer and also get paid a third time.
What incentive does Google have to fix all this? It gets paid to run sponsored ads. It gets paid when scam sites load ads through its AdSense network. If it fixes the problem, it loses money — and market share — on two fronts.
Google captures almost 30 percent of the entire US digital advertising market. It has nearly $300 billion in annual revenue. And in the third quarter of 2023, it made $44 billion from search ads alone — the very product that seems to be so easily manipulated.
How does Google address this issue? Shark Tank producer Clay Newbill has a place to start: “They should donate their profits from these sites to stopping scammers.”
But unless Google gets its act together, we’d all better get used to seeing things like this in search results: Shark Tank investor Lori Greiner pleading for people not to fall for diet scams, surrounded by the very scams she’s warning about.
Tomorrow, we’ll send out a template for us all to send to Google so that we can ask questions together. Keep your inbox open.
Stay safe on the internet!
Claire and Nandini