Fishy Facebook Ads: Earthly Citizens, Shutter & Contrast, and many more

(If you prefer this in form of a Twitter thread, see this one.)

Let’s start with the usual disclaimer that despite me working for a company that sells advertisement, this post is my own personal opinion, not my employer’s. I have written about Internet ads for years, well before I joined the company, and so it’s nothing new. To the usual disclaimer I’m going to add a few words to point out that there will be a few company names used in this post — I’ll be very clear when I think they are involved in something fishy, and when I think they are not involved at all.

This all starts with me deciding to get myself a new camera. While I’m very happy about the photos that my usual camera produce, I wanted something lighter that I could go around town more often with. But I also have been having issues with my shoulder, and I’ve been looking out for a good “handy” backpack to keep my stuff in. This is all relevant information.

Indeed, if you follow me on Twitter you may have seen me asking around for suggestions on backpacks. And this is also relevant: since I’m actually not minding ads for relevant content for myself, I have not hidden my looking for a new bag, I spoke about it on social media, and I have searched for backpacks and bags on my normal Google session. This is, again, all relevant information.

Because of my Google searches, I have been seeing a lot of ads related to photography. Including the one for the chain of photography stores that convinced me to go and grab my new camera from them. Very few of those ads are useful to me, but that one in particular have been.

Then the other day, on Instagram, I saw the ads for a backpack from a never-heard-before company advertising as Earthly Citizens. I’m not going to link directly to their website, although I’m choosing to explicitly name them here so that people who may be looking for them on Google and other search engines have a landing page helping them. The backpack that they advertised is this one (archived link) and it actually looks very nice in theory, on offer at £87.75 compared to a RRP of £159.61. To compare, my trusty Think Tank Airport Essentials is £147.04, and that’s one hell of a good bag.

The amount of red flags on that advertisement was high: unknown brand, no branding on the actual bag, unrealistic “flash sale” with no dates on it, and so on. So I didn’t really pay much attention. Then of course, since I have looked at the ad, I started seeing the same bag on Facebook — together with nearly 900 positive comments. I decided to do a minimum amount of digging into it, and found out that the website that the ad points to is a standard Shopify instance, which means that digging into it with IP addresses or WhoIs information is useless. And since there’s no address provided for the company even on privacy pages, there’s not much to go by. I walked away.

A day later, another set of ads start appearing on my Facebook stream, and they are for a backpack that is stunningly similar, or rather identical. But from a different page that has a more “photography” feel to it, called “Shutter & Contrast”. And that piqued my interest a little bit, because it sounded like another one of those cloned bags that I have seen aplenty on Instagram, and I would actually like to find the source at that point.

Just like Earthly Citizens, Shutter & Contrast don’t seem to be very well reviewed. Searching the web for the name and combination of reviews, backpack and scam don’t bring up anything useful. They also have a Shopify site, although their page for the same backpack (archived, again) is a bit more somber and “professional-looking”.

Funnily enough, it looks like they have blocked copy-paste and right-click, so that you can’t quickly reverse-image-search their photos. It didn’t surprise me, as I remembered a BuzzFeed article on fake fashion stores outright stealing real designers’ photos, so stopping the quickest reverse image search option would obviously be high in their intentions. Of course it’s actually easy to work this around, with any of the browsers’ developer tools.

Another interesting part from the Shutter & Contrast shop page is that they actually have an address in their Privacy Page: 11923 NE Sumner St, STE 813872, Portland, Oregon, 97220, USA. Again I’m repeating it here for sake of those looking any information on this company, because if you look up the address, you’ll probably find a Yelp page for a closed location called My Trail Gear, although it has a different “STE” number. The reviews, calling this a scam and pointing out that there is at least two more companies using the address, called “Bear and Tees” and “Shark and Tees”.

Checking the address on StreetView shows a smallish warehouse. My best guess is that there’s a service at that address that is similar to Ireland’s Parcel Motel and Parcel Wizard: companies that allow you to receive and send goods from that address, and then forward it somewhere else. The different “STE” numbers are used to route the parcels to the right customer. This means that despite the bad reviews on Yelp, Shutter & Contrast might be legit.

So I decided to take a closer look at the first one again. Earthly Citizen has a fairly active Facebook page, and if you read their About section, it says:

Our goal is to source all the best travel related documents from all around the world and bring them directly to your doorstep

Earthly Citizens Facebook Page

They don’t seem to be doing anything like that. Instead they seem to mostly re-post Instagram pictures by other people. At least it appears they are crediting the photographers — but it’s clear that they are using someone else’s pictures for their own marketing (so that they get people to follow their account). This should be worrisome enough, but it doesn’t stop there.

If you look at what they sell, they appear to be selling a lot of random stuff that you would find in those trinkets/gadgets shop in big malls, without brands, rhyme, or reason. So it does not look like they are the “source” of that bag to begin with. But is Shutter & Contrast then?

Earthly Citizens say that there are “too many fake websites that steal content”. They would know since they seem to be one.

A very quick reverse image search finds the same exact image appears on AliExpress (not archived because they seem to defeat it), the Chinese shopping website. There are multiple sellers for it there as well, and most of them have the same images — the same images that both Earthly Citizens and Shutter & Contrast used on their website.

It might very well be that these are the bag equivalent of Gongkai, as there are a few stores that sell them, and the fact that they come from Guangdong does not mean they are not good. I have a lovely tripod I bought at the Shanghai Xing Guang Photography Market, it’s a Chinese brand, it’s proper carbon fiber, and I paid for it half the price that you would pay in store in Europe, taxes included. If that is the case, the markups that Earthly Citizens and Shutter & Contrast are applying are thievery: they price it at $110 and $83 respectively, while AliExpress’s most expensive seller has it at $52.

But there is one thing that I forgot about during my Twitter rant, and that my girlfriend pointed out: what about the pictures of people in the advertising? Neither AliExpress nor Earthly Citizens appear to have a picture of the backpack with a person. There are people with cameras, but nobody with the actual backpack that you can reverse image search for. There is a video on Earthly Citizens’s Facebook page, which is the same used by the Instagram ad, and that suggests that the bag physically exist, but it’s heavily watermarked that makes it hard to find the source on. Shutter &Contrast has a video unlisted on YouTube, on a white background with no logos shown, and just re-captioned to fit their marketing of it. It appears uploaded in February 2019.

More useful, Shutter & Contrast appear to also have a still picture of someone wearing what looks like the backpack they are selling, and that’s the first time in this adventure I managed to find that. Reverse image search brings us to yet another Shopify instance under the name ConnectedTechPacks (archived), which can also be found as BestGearPack. Their website is a bit more well made, and it appears to only sell that single backpack. Are they the source? I doubt so, since both websites were registered in April this year, and we know that the backpack existed in February. But they also have a couple of different people with the same backpack, and another angle of the same guy.

Another reverse image search later finds yet another Shopify instance with the same backpack, a set of GIF animations that are also heavily watermarked, but are the same as Earthly Citizens’s version.

So where did all this investigation bring us? Not really anywhere. I can’t find any trustworthy brand selling the backpack, and while I may be willing to risk my £40 on the AliExpress version – rather than twice as much with any of the other Shopify instances that I found – I don’t hold my breath for it to look at all like they show it, or have the build quality that I would trust my cameras with.

It does show just how easy it is to fool people nowadays. It’s easy to set up a “storefront” without needing an actual space anymore. It’s easy to “gain trust” by having people follow your page with no original content, just by re-posting content that professionals provided.

What about the 900 positive comments that the ad received? Well it’s possible that they are actual real satisfied customers who didn’t realize they got charged probably twice as much as they should have for the same bag you can get from AliExpress. Or they may be “bought engagement”. Or just a bunch of bots that have harvested someone else’s name and pictures to create fake profile to sell the stuff.

You know all the panic around politics and elections and fake profiles? It’s not just the elections. Fake profiles sell scams. And that can hurt people just as much as political elections. I remember when it was just the artists complaining about pages re-posting their content… we should have paid attention then. Now the same pages and the same techniques are used for more nefarious purposes and we all pay the price, sooner or later.

Ads, spying, and my personal opinion

In the past year or so, I have seen multiple articles, even by authors who I thought would have more rational sense to them, over the impression that people get about being spied upon by technology and technology companies. I never got particularly bothered to talk about them, among other things because the company I work for (Google) is one that is often at the receiving end of those articles, and it would be disingenuous for me to “defend” it, even though I work in Site Realiability, which gives me much less insight in how tracking is done than, say, my friends who work in media at other companies.

But something happened a few weeks ago gave me an insight on one of the possible reasons why people think this, and I thought I would share my opinion on this. Before I start let me make clear that what I’m going to write about is something that is pieced together with public information only. As you’ll see soon, the commentary is not even involving my company’s products, and because of that I had access to no private information whatsoever.

As I said in other previous posts, I have had one huge change in my personal life over the past few months: I’m in a committed relationship. This means that there’s one other person beside me that spends time in the apartment, using the same WiFi. This is going to be an important consideration as we move on later.

Some weeks ago, my girlfriend commented on a recent tourism advertisement campaign by Lithuania (her country) on Facebook. A few hours later, I received that very advertisement on my stream. Was Facebook spying on us? Did they figure out that we have been talking a lot more together and thus thought that I should visit her country?

I didn’t overthink it too much because I know it can be an absolute coincidence.

Then a few weeks later, we were sitting on the sofa watching Hanayamata on Crunchyroll. I took a bathroom break between episodes (because Cruncyroll’s binge mode doesn’t work on Chromecast), and as I came back she showed me that Instagram started showing her Crunchyroll ads — “Why?!” We were using my phone to watch the anime, as I have the account. She’s not particularly into anime, this was almost a first as the material interested her. So why the ads?

I had to think a moment to give her an answer. I had to make a hypothesis because obviously I don’t have access to either Crunchyroll or Instagram ads tracking, but I think I’m likely to have hit close to the bullseye and when I realized what I was thinking of, I considered the implications with the previous Facebook ads, and the whole lot of articles about spying.

One more important aspect that I have not revealed yet, is that I requested my ISP to give me a static, public IPv4 address instead of the default CGNAT one. I fell for the wet dream, despite not really having used the feature since. It’s handy, don’t get me wrong, if I was to use it. But the truth is that I probably could have not done so and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference.

Except for the ads of course. Because here’s how I can imagine these two cases to have happened.

My girlfriend reads Lithuanian news from her phone, which is connected to my WiFi when she’s here. And we both use Facebook on the same network. It’s not terribly far-fetched to expect that some of the trackers on the Lithuanian news sites she visits are causing the apartment’s stable, static, public IP address to be added to a list of people possibly interested in the country.

Similarly, when we were watching Crunchyroll, we were doing so from the same IP address she was checking Instagram. Connect the two dots and now you have the reason why Instagram thought she’d be a good candidate for seeing an advert for Crunchyroll. Which honestly would make more sense if they intended to exclude those who do have an account, in which case I would not have them trying to convince me to… give them the money I already give them.

Why do I expect this to be IP tracking? Because it’s the only thing that makes sense. We haven’t used Facebook or Messenger to chat in months, so they can’t get signal from that. She does not have the Assistant turned on on her phone, and while I do, I’m reasonably sure that even if it was used for advertisement (and as far as I know, it isn’t), it would not be for Facebook and Instagram.

IP-based tracking is the oldest trick in the book. I would argue that it’s the first tracking that was done, and probably one of the least effective. But at the same time it’s mostly a passive tracking system, which means it’s much easier to accomplish under the current limits and regulations, including but not limited to GDPR.

This obviously has side effects that are even more annoying. If the advertisers start to target IP address indiscriminately, it would be impossible for me or my girlfriend to search for surprises for each other. Just to be on the safe side, I ordered flowers for our half-year anniversary from the office, in the off-chance that the site would put me on a targeting list for flower ads and she could guess about it.

This is probably a lot less effective for people who have not set up static IP addresses, since there should be a daily or so rotation of IP addresses that confuses the tracking enough. But I can definitely see how this can also go very wrong when a household dynamic are pathological, if the previous holder of the address managed to get the IP on targeted lists for unexpected announces.

I have to say that in these cases I do prefer when ads are at least correctly targeted. You can check your Ads preferences for Google and Facebook if you want to actually figure out if they know anything about you that you don’t want them to. I have yet to find out how to stop the dozens of “{Buzzword} {Category} Crowdfunding Videos” pages that keep spamming me on Facebook though.