It's unfortunately true that there is and always will be a segment of our population dedicated to turning the latest developments in technology into a scam or grift, and this is the case with AI imagery. As the quality of images generated by AI engines such as Midjourney and DALL·E increase and it becomes easier to create convincing faux photos, scammers have been hard at work inventing fictional products and selling them online using social media. In this post, I'll point out some telltales and describe some red flags that you should be on the look out for.
My first encounter with these new scams on social media using AI images was what appeared to be a very clunky and obvious operation selling hanging dinosaur-shaped chairs for kids. Ads for them by inspiringdesigns.net appeared for a time about four months ago in my Facebook and Instagram feeds. That they were fake was very obvious to me and I filed that away as worthy of further investigation. When I did just that this morning - had a closer look - it became clear that the guy running this site is not actually selling anything. From the website: "While we don’t manufacture physical products, our digital designs lay the groundwork for what could be."
I'm not sure what this guy is up to, but he is very busy and extremely prolific. His name is Ryan Harrison, his "brand" has a large following on Facebook (415K), and the whole thing is packaged as if these products are for sale. His posts get a lot of traffic and traction, and appear to get people excited and asking questions (if they are real people and not bots, that is), but it's all just smoke. His website has a standard blog format that is stuffed with posts about these "products" but there are no banner ads and no business end, no checkout. Although Ryan's motivations are somewhat mysterious (maybe hoping to attract an actual manufacturer?), his work has established a blueprint that other scammers are using to actual nefarious ends.
Three current examples are SeedLust, Customaket and Presgloble:.
Here is a summary of SeedLust.com from Malwaretips:
"What is the SeedLust.com scam? SeedLust.com is a website that claims to sell various products at very low prices. However, it is actually a fraudulent site that does not deliver the ordered items or sends counterfeit or damaged goods. The site also collects personal and financial information from customers, which can be used for identity theft or other malicious purposes.
How does the SeedLust.com scam work? The SeedLust.com fake online shopping site scam works by luring customers with attractive offers and discounts. The scammers use various methods to promote this fake site, such as sending phishing emails, posting fake ads on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, or creating fake news articles. SeedLust.com looks professional and legitimate, with a secure payment system and a customer service section. However, once customers place their orders and pay with their credit cards or other methods, they either receive nothing or receive poor-quality products that do not match the description or images on the site. Customers who try to contact the site for refunds or complaints are either ignored or blocked."
The following is a review of Customaket from Scam Detector:
"Scam Detector gives customaket.com the absolute lowest rank on the platform: 0. It signals that the business could be defined by the following tags: High-Risk. Phishing. Beware.
We are pretty sure about our rating as we also partner with a few other high-tech, fraud-prevention companies that found the same issues. There are tons of reasons for this minimal rating. We came up with the 0 rank according to a formula that aggregates 53 factors relevant to customaket.com's industry. The algorithm detected high-risk activity related to phishing and spamming and other factors relevant to the industry. Hence the above-mentioned High-Risk. Phishing. Beware. tags. Long story short, stay away from this website."
And finally, here is an extensive summary of Presgloble from Malwaretips:
"On the surface, Presgloble.com appears to be an authentic online marketplace selling various discounted items to shoppers at prices significantly lower than major retailers.
Nothing at all – The most common outcome. Orders go unfulfilled and simply disappear after payments are processed.
Knock-off or inferior substitutes – Victims may receive cheap replicas made with poor-quality materials that do not match the original product descriptions.
Used, damaged, or tampered goods – In some cases, victims report receiving items that are clearly used, broken, or otherwise tampered with, showing that no new products are being shipped.
Completely wrong items – Some orders arrive with products that are completely different from what was ordered, demonstrating no order accuracy.
On top of selling sham goods or no goods at all, Presgloble.com also unscrupulously collects customers’ personal and financial data during checkout, including full names, home addresses, phone numbers, credit card details, and more. This information is likely used or sold for nefarious purposes like identity theft, credit card fraud, or sharing on dark web marketplaces. Presgloble.com exhibits all of the classic warning signs of an online shopping scam that customers should avoid at all costs."
Here's what to look for when ads for products like these show up in your feed:
1. Very intricate and colourful products.
AI image engines are particularly good at crafting images of items that are highly detailed, intricately designed and vividly coloured. The overall effect can be impressive at first glance, suggesting craftsmanship and attention to detail. There is a part of the brain that wants to believe that something so detailed must be real, otherwise where did all those details come from? That intricacy coupled with bright colours creates a product that is very "pretty" and likely to appeal to a wide audience.
2. Products with a nature theme, especially those associated with a celebrity or a charitable cause.
Scammers know that people love animals, like to help with environmental causes, and trust celebrities. Including these qualities and attributes in their fake products helps to broaden their potential market. The ad for boots from Presgloble shown here is particularly egregious. This ad was originally a cute photo of a young girl with her hair in ribbons and wearing a tulle dress. A friend of mine liked the photo enough to share it on her Facebook timeline, at which point the post was altered to this ad - a classic bait and switch. Those boots might be real or might be AI-generated (although I lean towards AI-generated because the angle of the thumb in the photo looks off), but they exhibit all the hallmarks of this kind of scam. They are intricate and detailed, they are colourful, they have an animal on them, and they were disseminated through a group that is unofficially associated with a celebrity. Topping it all off, the ad's distribution onto people's feeds is duplicitous. Ballsy.
3. Hands and/or faces of models may seem oddly formed or intentionally obscured. This red flag will only have utility for a little while longer as AI gets better at rendering hands and faces, but it's still something to look for. Hands, in particular, are something that AI continues to struggle with. This "ad" from inspiringdesigns.net has it all. The boy's hand is covered by a banner, his eyes look weird if you zoom in for a closer look, and even his sneakers are malformed. In many ways, this issue reminds me of the level of fidelity in counterfeit money. Counterfeiters don't try to duplicate bills exactly, because doing so would be extremely time intensive and costly, defeating the profit margin. Instead, counterfeiters try to nail down enough aspects of a bill so that it passes a quick inspection and gets handed off quickly. It's about the overall impression, rather than the specific details.
4. Suspiciously high engagement on social media posts/ads, particularly when compared to the actual number of followers on the poster's parent account. We're talking about bots here and fake engagement, used to give the impression of popularity. I saw this ad from "Aireaim Shop" yesterday in my feed, which is just a repackaged ad from SeedLust. It has 2.9K responses, 464 comments, and 462 shares, while the parent account has 31 followers and seems to sell purses exclusively. Notice, too, the tagline or description which reads, "TIPS Our goods are authentic with genuine patents counterfeit must be investigated." The whole thing is so lazy and transparent it is almost painful.
These scams will only get more sophisticated and more convincing as the quality of AI imagery increases. Be on your guard and treat all ads like this with suspicion until you have done some research. That research may be complicated, because these scammers can plant fake positive reviews on various websites and do things like inventing fake users who comment on these ads about how happy they are with the product. "I received mine in the mail yesterday after only two weeks and I am thrilled!" So much bullshit. It's particularly galling for a guy like me who sells actual products like t-shirts and bucket hats that are decorated with AI imagery; the waters get muddy very quickly and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is legitimate and who is scamming. Which is is precisely the point, of course.