I Clicked On 10 Crypto Twitter Ads. All 10 Were Scams.

Ads on X targeting crypto users are often too good to be true

By: André Beganski

January 5, 2024

Elon Musk had a pretty clear message for big brand advertisers ditching X last year: “Go f— yourself.” But now, it might be the remaining advertisers f—ing X's users.

As crypto excitement returns, people have been complaining about a spike in scam ads on the platform formerly known as Twitter. Even my own feed has become inundated. But sketchy ads are all too common in crypto, could things really have gotten worse?

In a new Coinage experiment using my own money, I endeavored to test just how bad things have gotten since Musk shifted the advertising focus from brands like Disney to prioritizing smaller businesses as a source of growth to buoy X’s sinking revenue.

Just 10 clicks later, I would lose most of my digital money.

Getting F—, Myself

The first advertisement in our experiment on X claims the first 500 NFTs are available for free. Boasting a futuristic, anthropomorphized duck in headphones, the ad encourages users to join the so-called Cyber Ducks. To snag one, just click on through and connect a wallet, but as I’ll learn — there’s a hefty price for Web3 users not paying close enough attention. 

The website for Cyber Duck, a purported NFT collection, linked to an ad on X
The website for Cyber Duck, a purported NFT collection, linked to an ad on X

I started the experiment by spreading 0.113 Ethereum ($250) across 10 self-custodial wallets and prepared a list of 10 ads we at Coinage came across. (Giving users total control over owning their assets is core to crypto’s ethos, but as I’ll also learn, the prospect of lost funds is always just a few clicks away.) Despite Cyber Duck advertising a free mint, the first click prompts a transaction for almost all the ETH in my wallet. Another click later and nearly $20 in ETH leaves my wallet. Worse yet, no Cyber Duck. I got nothing.

To be clear, each malicious transaction had to be approved by myself. And the popular self-custodial wallet Metamask warned of potential threats from websites linked to by some X ads before even I connected my wallet, much like Google Chrome warns users of dubious websites. On top of that, a transaction preview in Metamask warned of steep losses before a transaction was approved in several instances. In no case was merely connecting a wallet the core cause of lost funds, though that has become more popular. In this case, a transaction request for Ethereum followed each time a wallet was connected.

Are Scams X’s Fault?

By the third ad I clicked on, it quickly became clear none of the ads were going to live up to the promises they promoted — whether it was instantly doubling digital assets sent, or checking what airdrops a Web3 user might be eligible for. Of course, airdrops are a real occurrence in crypto to reward community members with gifts, often to spur adoption. But several times, ads promoted airdrops from emulated projects, people, or products. Those included the self-custodial wallet Metamask, Solana co-founder Anatoly Yakovenko, and Ripple Labs CEO Brad Garlinghouse.

A deceptive ad using deep fake tech to emulate Solana co-founder Anatoly Yakovenko
A deceptive ad using deep fake tech to emulate Solana co-founder Anatoly Yakovenko

Scam ads including Yakovenko and Garlinghouse used deepfake technology to create videos promoting a purported airdrop. In the case of the fake Solana ad, it directed X users to a website via QR code, instructing them to send either Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana, or the stablecoin Tether to “participate in [a] giveaway.” For the false ad including Garlinghouse, it requested the token XRP be sent to a specific address, none of which Coinage had at the time, making it the only false ad that didn’t successfully take my money.

After connecting a digital wallet to each website the ad linked to, and approving a transaction if it came up, or following its instructions, I was left with 0.035 Ethereum ($81) — losing most of my funds. Anywhere from $1 to $8 worth of Ethereum was left in each wallet, except for the one instance involving XRP.

X has features that can keep false ads in check, Musk told Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times this past November, while highlighting X’s so-called community notes. Allowing the platform’s users to add context to potentially misleading posts, he said, “With a community note, if there’s false advertising, the community note will say, ‘this is false and this is why.’”

During its investigation, none of the false advertisements Coinage encountered had been tagged with a community note. Most of the ads had been posted within a couple of days of being viewed too. In some posts copying legitimate NFT collections, though, X users resorted to leaving comments that warned others. For example, a false ad pretending to be from The Plague had X users alerting others that it was indeed a scam.

A fake ad copying The Plague that's garnered 280,000 views (left.)
A fake ad copying The Plague that's garnered 280,000 views (left.)

A day after the fake ad was posted on X, the legitimate collection — which has 3,404 unique owners, according to the NFT marketplace OpenSea — issued a warning within its official discord server, urging community members to stay vigilant amid an increase in fake ads.

“There are lots of fake mint links floating around X & discord,” The Plague’s pseudonymous community manager swankyjohn said. “Do not click any links until you are sure they are legit, as with anything in this space [...] Just to re-iterate, we are not doing a mint, any link you see for that is 100% FAKE.”

Even though the community has focussed on keeping its members informed, “It’s the people outside of our community that I am concerned about,” the collection’s pseudonymous founder, @Pons_ETH on X, told Coinage in a written statement. “The scams really piss me off.”

Aside from scammers illegally using the collection's intellectual property to hurt Web3 users, @Pons_ETH expressed frustration over X’s inability to vet fake ads from the get-go. The founder said that The Plague has “reported the issue many times,” but nobody who works at X has reached out. “They should be trained to filter this stuff out,” @Pons_ETH said of X employees reviewing ads. “It would not be so hard to do.”

Several ads we originally included in the experiment were removed days later. Yet some posted weeks ago continued to rack up hundreds of thousands of views. X did not reply to a request for comment from Coinage.

In terms of Musk’s headspace these days, the former Dogecoin cheerleader recently told Ark Invest CEO Cathie Wood that he doesn’t “spend a lot of time thinking about cryptocurrency — hardly any at all.” Yet Musk weighed in on crypto recently when he commented on a post from Twitter and Block co-founder Jack Dorsey. Under a post from Dorsey on X promoting Bitkey, a self-custodial Bitcoin wallet from Block, Musk took a stab at a common crypto mantra on the value of self-custody. He said, “Not your keys, not your wallet, as they say.”

Based on how Bitcoin and Ethereum are designed, an individual has to approve a transaction each time the asset is moved, which conveys losses through transaction previews innately, Parker McCurley, the Founder and CEO of Decent DAO, a firm that develops privacy technology for institutional decentralized finance, told Coinage in an interview.

“If you're moving money, then all [self-custodial] wallets are designed to show that either the base asset itself or the token is being moved,” he said. “Early threat detection before you've even connected your wallet that's all on Metamask ... that's awesome.”

It's important to note that security alerts aren't enabled for Metamask users by default. They have to be enabled in the wallet's settings, under a tab called experimental. Tapping tech from the security firm Blockaid, the feature was rolled out this past November.

But even that doesn't come without potential collateral damage. Coinage members reported that our own award-winning site had been flagged by Blockaid's tech as potentially malicious in Rainbow and Zerion wallets a few months ago. Blockaid tells us they quickly fixed the flag.

So, the experiment to protect ourselves continues.

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