It seemed too good to be true: Snoop Dogg himself, speaking directly to your Facebook feed, with his mind on your money and your money on his mind.
“If you owe $10,000 on your credit card, look, you can qualify for a program and get you thousands of your dollars back by making a 15-minute phone call,” he said.
The rap legend made dozens of such appearances in a $274,000 ad campaign across Facebook and Instagram, according to the company’s public ad archive. The content, from a page called “Debt Council,” shilled a “Christian-led” program that promised to zap unpaid bills through a $7.6 billion government loophole. It ushered users toward financial freedom in the form of 800-number hotlines and a website bearing vague testimonials and stock imagery.
“Listen to your boy Snoop D-O-Double G 🙏🏻,” one ad pleaded with Facebook users, adding that “thousands of $$ you are rightfully entitled to” were at stake.
But there’s a big problem: The loophole doesn’t appear to exist. “It is a scam if there is no such program,” said Seth Rosenberg, a managing member at The Seattle Litigation Group, a law firm that advises on debt relief. “To my knowledge, there is no government program.”
The deceptive marketing was part of a multi-layered effort to funnel Facebook users toward opaque debt-relief firms. Many of Debt Council’s other ads featured misleading videos of President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from events unrelated to credit card debt. And details of the supposed religious backers — let alone any person affiliated with the organization — were nowhere to be found.
“Just stay far away,” warned Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “We fight companies like this all the time.”
A VICE News analysis of thousands of Facebook ads also found that Debt Council was just the tip of the iceberg. A network of at least four pages pumped about $5 million into the platform since it began disclosing political ads in May 2018, and one page — Finance Watchdogs — dropped more during that span than the presidential campaigns of Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. With some managers listed in the Philippines and the U.K., the pages Finance Watchdogs, Tax Times, and Finance Bureau similarly advertised for new government debt-relief programs that don’t appear to exist, leading users to near-identical websites.
“❌ DO NOT PAY THE IRS ❌,” screamed one ad from Tax Times.
After VICE News flagged the pages to Facebook, a company spokesperson said the pages violated its policy for unacceptable business practices. The rule bars “deceptive or misleading practices, including those meant to scam people out of money or personal information.” It also prohibits ads that use imagery of public figures to “mislead users into buying a scam product.”
“These kinds of deceptive ads have no place on Facebook. We have removed these pages and their associated ad accounts,” the spokesperson said in a statement. She did not specify which aspects of the ads broke the platform’s rules.
“We’re investing to improve and evolve our enforcement to get ahead of this type of behavior,” she added.
Consumers can settle credit card and other debt with the help of lawyers and nonprofits. And debt-relief companies can be legitimate in theory if they comply with federal regulations and various state laws.
But the Federal Trade Commission has warned of potential abuse in the form of services that aren’t actually provided or unforeseen costs that could suck consumers dry. Credit-related complaints are among the most common in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s database.
“I would say the whole for-profit debt settlement industry is a scam,” said Andrew Pizor, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “Their advertising definitely plays on desperation.”
Civil rights groups and federal regulators have criticized Facebook for allegedly allowing advertisers to discriminate against minority groups or other vulnerable communities. In response to that pressure this year, the company tightened its policies to limit the extent to which users can be targeted with housing, employment, and credit-related ads. It has also expanded an archive of political and issue ads that aids in accountability efforts.
But the debt-relief network could spotlight a grey area where shady marketers may still try to operate. In the fine print at the bottom of Debt Council’s site, it said that it’s not a debt-relief company, but rather a referral company. “This website is intended for informational purposes and as a reference tool to match consumers with companies that may be able to assist them,” the page said.
That “lead generation” can be valuable to companies seeking new customers. But in practice, as the FTC laid out in an analysis of the industry in 2016, it can mean hoovering up consumer data and then selling that information to other companies, often without consumers’ knowledge. Marketers are also able to use that personal information in more highly targeted ads on platforms that don’t have the same restrictions as Facebook, said Sara Collins, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based think tank.
“This, to me, seems like a workaround to get a certain kind of clientele that the [platforms] — as they existed before — would have gotten themselves,” Collins said. “This may be something we see more of to get around Facebook’s heightened scrutiny of these protected characteristics in advertising.”
When VICE News called a hotline listed in Debt Council’s ads, an operator from a company called Debt Trends picked up. She asked not for money up front — which could be illegal — but contact information, an address, and Social Security number. She said she’d forward it to an unnamed law group that pairs callers with attorneys across 37 states. She added that clients paid “65 cents on the dollar or less…40 goes to the creditor and 25 go to the attorney.”
Referral services like Debt Trends that connect attorneys with clients are legal, provided they comply with state law. But consumer advocates told VICE News that debt-relief companies often bring in attorneys to lend an unearned air of legitimacy to their work.
In this case, the service is near impossible to evaluate. A website for the law group listed in the operator’s email address, attyreferralservices.com, is riddled with 404 messages and lists no contact information for any law firms.
After VICE News inquired about the company’s ownership, the operator said, “I’m not authorized to have any type of conversation like that. I just work here.” She and other Debt Trends operators said that their company is legitimate, adding that they had no knowledge of what marketing firm it paid to attract new callers. Their higher-ups did not return phone messages seeking additional comment, and Debt Trends’ hotline went dark Friday afternoon.
“The user at the number you just dialed has blocked all incoming calls,” an away message said Friday. An email to Debt Trends was likewise not returned, while a Nexis search of public records yielded no results.
The underlying marketing campaign was similarly murky. No one from the four Facebook pages in question responded to notes left through Facebook Messenger or email addresses listed on their associated websites. Soon after VICE News began making the inquiries, all four of the websites were taken offline.
While Facebook displays when pages are created and where page managers are located, it does not disclose who is actually behind them. Disclaimers on political and issue ads typically only show the page that bought them — not its human owner. While a few ads for Finance Bureau did list a name, VICE News was unable to contact the person directly.
The pages’ content often featured Trump, including ads that showed video of him signing an executive order on student loan debt for disabled veterans, an apparent attempt to suggest the creation of broader debt-relief programs. Additional ads about new federal loopholes displayed video of Pelosi as she was elected House Speaker earlier this year.
Influencers were a more recent flourish. Along with Snoop Dogg, the rapper Jermaine Dupri also appeared in a testimonial for Debt Council. “Your credit score can jump up to 109 points in less than 30 days,” he said. “Find out how much money you can get by calling now. Right now.”
Dupri’s video included a watermark for Cameo, a marketplace where celebrities can sell personalized messages to fans. Representatives for Cameo, Dupri, and Snoop Dogg all did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment.
Both rappers do have Cameo accounts. For Dupri, a smaller name than Snoop, custom videos can go for as little as $50 a pop. But as one of Debt Council’s ads said, he “never misses a beat.”
Cover: Snoop Dogg attends the AFI FEST 2019 Presented By Audi premiere of “Queen & Slim” at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 14, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)