On a usual morning in September 2020, Tribhuvan, a daily wage labourer who lives in a village called Umari in Maharashtra, logged on to Facebook. As he scrolled through his feed, a catchy advertisement offering massive discounts on shoes, belts, and goggles caught his attention.
The 30-year-old twelfth-pass had been doing odd jobs in carpentry, masonry, and at farms. The pandemic had forced him to scramble for work.
When he clicked on the ad, he was redirected to the Facebook page of Marya Studio – the company running the ad and selling the products. He spotted a pair of Nike shoe priced at Rs 599. Tribhuvan had been planning to buy a shoe for a while but his depleting savings did not allow him to. He decided to indulge himself. Afterall, it was a branded shoe that no one would offer so cheap.
The more he scrolled through Marya Studio's page, the more legit it seemed. "I have been using Facebook for nearly a decade and I had seen many such ads before," Tribhuvan told Decode.
He ordered the shoe but never got it.
Online fraudulent shopping scams through advertised portals on Facebook, and other Meta platforms is not uncommon. Users of social media platforms often see ads on their feed offering discounted rates for products that seem legitimate and tempting. However, once an order for the product is placed, it may never show up at the customer's door, or sometimes, an entirely different product of lesser quality is delivered. Availing a refund or returning the product then becomes a mammoth task, sometimes an impossible one as the websites that sell the products turn out to be possibly fake without any listed contact details whatsoever.
But not too often does a consumer file a complaint, especially not against social media giants for being scammed by websites advertised on those platforms.
Tribhuvan, though, decided that this was a battle he must "fight for self respect". So, with the help of his lawyer friend he filed a case against Facebook.
In a rare order in June, a Consumer Commission directed Facebook India and Meta Platforms to pay Rs 25,000 as compensation to Tribhuvan.
But that's not how it was going to end. Tribhuban's fight is far from over.
A Scam And Then Another Scam
For over 10 days, Tribhuban had waited for Marya Studio to communicate the shipping details and tracking ID. He tried to find a customer care number on the website page. There was none. Restless, he searched the company's name on Google and found four numbers listed.
When he called one of these numbers, a customer care executive answered the phone. "I finally thought the matter would be resolved and I will get my shoe," he told Decode.
Blaming the pandemic for the delay, the customer care executive offered a refund for the product and sent a link to Tribhuvan. "They asked me to provide my address and debit card details to receive a refund. I did," the 30-year-old said.
Then the executive asked him to download AnyDesk, a remote access tool that allows a user to gain control of another device, apparently to track the refund status. Once Tribhuvan shared the OTP, the executive had control of Tribhuvan's phone.
Within hours, Tribhuvan got a message from his bank — Rs 7,500 has been debited from his account. "I felt betrayed," he said. "I had to sell my goats during the pandemic to feed my family. That money was not easy money," he added.
Tribhuvan called his childhood friend Sagar Chavhan, a 27-year-old advocate, also from the same village. Like many others, Sagar was stuck in his village during the pandemic and could not return to Mumbai where he had been practicing for three years.
An avid follower of BR Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, Sagar believes in putting up a fight even if he doesn't win in the end. He was convinced that he is ready to take on Facebook.
The Fight Against Facebook
"I took screenshots of the website. We then filed a police complaint. We even approached Tribhuvan's bank asking them to freeze his account. But deep down, I knew nothing effective was going to happen," Sagar recollected.
"This is when I thought that Facebook should bear some responsibility for the scam", Sagar told Decode.
Marya Studio's ad was running on the social media platform, so Sagar was of the opinion that Facebook had vicarious liability — a situation in which one party (Facebook) is held partly responsible for the unlawful actions of a third party (Maria Studio).
Sagar sent emails to Facebook seeking their response and compensation for Tribhuvan's financial loss.
When he did not receive a response, he filed a consumer case in the Gondia District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 (CPA 2019) against Facebook India and Meta Platforms. The CPA 2019 provides for the protection of the interests of Indian consumers and provides a framework for resolving consumer disputes.
Facebook India objected to Tribhuvan's complaint before the Gondia Consumer Commission on three grounds:
- That Tribhuvan is not a 'consumer' of Facebook India, within the meaning of CPA, 2019, and therefore a case could not be filed under CPA 2019.
- That even if he was, Facebook India is not liable since it does not operate or control Facebook service.
- That Facebook has been given immunity from any liability under India's Information Technology Act, 2000.
Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook India based in the United States, said that under Indian laws, they were not required to proactively monitor the ads running on the platform. It also stated that it offers user-friendly tools to report any policy violations and that it takes reasonable steps to enforce them.
"I didn't agree with their response. They are making millions in revenue each year through those ads. Shouldn't there be some responsibility?" Sagar asked this reporter while emphasizing that Facebook was liable to compensate Tribhuvan for his loss.
Raman Chima, the Asia policy director at Access Now, an organisation that advocates for the digital civil rights of people, feels that the argument put forth by Facebook is "very weak".
"They are directly aiding third parties to target their audience. So they very much have a relationship with Facebook users. They have a commercial relationship with the other party (ad publisher) because they are making money off of them. Lastly, of course, they have a responsibility for letting their platform be used by a party maliciously", Chima told Decode.
Facebook's argument that it is protected from any liability under the IT Act 2000 is also shaky. "When it comes to intermediary liability in India under the IT Act which provides qualified legal immunity for platforms, specifically for user-generated content, that does not generally apply for advertisements. This means that one can argue the platforms are directly liable for whatever is being shown. You can make that case out. You may not always be able to prove it but you are not barred from filing such a case, especially if the platform was brought to knowledge about a potential fraudulent behaviour but they did not take action," Chima said.
Despite strong objections from Facebook, the Consumer Commission in Gondia went ahead with the case and passed a detailed order on 30 June this year, finding Facebook partly guilty in Tribhuvan's case.
The Consumer Commission referred to Consumer Protection (E-Commerce) Rules 2020 and said that Facebook had failed to provide complete details of the seller Maria Studio so as to enable a consumer to raise a grievance if need be. More importantly, it noted that Facebook did not educate users about fraud and failed to place sufficient safeguards to protect Indian consumers.
It ordered Facebook to compensate Tribhuvan for 599 rupees (the amount for the shoes) due to misleading advertisement and to also pay 25,000 rupees towards mental agony and legal costs.
The Commission also ordered Meta to comply with the E-Commerce Rules 2020 and run advertisements on all platforms to spread awareness about scam ads. "Submit compliance report quarterly for a period of 2 years to this Commission", the order noted.
Tribhuvan was ecstatic. After almost two years, he had finally won; that too against a social media giant. "I was very happy," Tribhuvan said.
But his happiness was short-lived.
The Fight Isn't Over
On 15 September, just two months after the Consumer Commission's order, Facebook India approached the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court and successfully received a stay on the order.
"We did not expect the matter to reach the High Court," Sagar told Decode.
On being asked if he is worried about arguing the case before a battery of top-notch lawyers that Facebook could hire, Sagar said, "I am ready to argue the matter when the time comes. It will be a chance to prove my advocacy".
The High Court while staying the Consumer Commission's order put a condition on Facebook to deposit the compensatory amount with its High Court Registry — the administrative secretariat of the Court. The Judge granted liberty to Tribhuvan to withdraw the amount if he wants, subject to the condition that if he loses the legal battle, he would return the money to Facebook.
"Money is not important. We can work and earn two meals a day. What is important is that Facebook should not be allowed to escape," Tribhuvan said.
Decode reached out to Facebook India's legal team, but they refused to comment on the case.
How Does Facebook Get Away With Such Scam Ads?
It is not as though stories like that of Tribhuvan are isolated incidents. Similar scams have unfolded across the world and it continues to. Facebook's Marketplace, a destination on Facebook where people can discover, buy and sell items, is riddled with scam advertisements and the company has been accused of doing nothing substantial to tackle the issue.
Given the massive reach of the platform—roughly 2.7 billion users worldwide, Facebook has become a go-to tool for small businesses who seek to reach customers, but also a gold mine for con artists.
In 2021, Meta earned 115 billion U.S. dollars in ad revenues. In India, it saw a staggering 74% growth in ad revenues this year.
Despite its massive ad revenues that form the platform's main source of income, Facebook has resisted taking any blame for scams through its platform.
Multiple reports have pointed out how Facebook has profited from scam ads. A BuzzFeed report from 2020 revealed that Facebook is pushing to grow revenue in regions that flood its pages with scams. The report noted that Facebook's internal emails have revealed how the company's "ad workers have at times been told to ignore suspicious behaviour unless it would result in financial losses for Facebook". Another report said Facebook made 50 million dollars from a single scam marketing agency.
Indians too have been lured into paying in return for cheap smartphones, work-from-home schemes, and much more. When these victims approach Facebook, there's rarely a response, much less an action. In some cases, Facebook has even refused to take down the scam pages.
In some countries, lawmakers have called for legal accountability from platforms including Facebook and Google that advertise companies which then go on to scam consumers.
As a result of massive pressure from the United Kingdom's lawmakers, the country's proposed Online Safety Bill has included scam ads within its ambit and fines worth 10% of the company's global annual turnover to encourage compliance with the law.
Similarly, in Australia, its consumer watchdog took Meta to court for what it called "aiding and abetting" celebrity scam ads that caused financial loss to several Australians.
In India, however, the rules are unclear. There is no explicit law requiring platforms like Facebook to monitor and act against scam ads.
The CPA 2019 provides certain protections against false or misleading ads published by a trader, manufacturer, endorser, advertiser or publisher. These include orders for takedown, modification, penalisation, or even ban for a certain time period.
The primary defence put forward by Facebook in such cases is that it is not responsible for transactions that take place between a buyer and a seller that advertises on its platform.
When a user clicks on an ad they see on Facebook, they are redirected to the website of the seller and further transactions take place there, thereby keeping Facebook away from the process. And that is what Facebook has used to find a way out from taking responsibility for such scam ads.
In Tribhuvan's case, Facebook had pleaded that a "consumer-seller" relationship did not exist between him and Facebook since the transaction took place with a third-party (Marya Studio). As a result, Facebook says that a case itself could not be filed under the CPA 2019 against it.
Chima, the Asia policy director at Access Now, said that platforms try to be as legally protected as possible, but all of them understand the responsibility when it comes to running advertisements.
"This is because they are directly profiting over ads and often they are helping people select audiences or target people based on what they are doing. They have an obligation to check and monitor what they are doing and platforms do have teams set up just to do this," Chima told Decode.
When asked about the extent to which a platform can be made liable for a misleading or scam ad, Chima says that that has to be decided on a case-to-case basis. "Like in this case (Tribhuvan's case), the consumer commission fined Facebook for perhaps aiding deceptive consumer practice. But they are not saying that Facebook is responsible for the full criminal matter."
Another important aspect of Tribhuvan's case was the reliance placed on the E-Commerce Rules 2020 by the Commission. Facebook before the Bombay High Court has said that it is not proven if they are at all an "e-commerce entity" to be subjected to e-commerce rules and therefore, the Commission was wrong to direct them to comply with the rules.
Chima says that Facebook as a whole cannot be called an e-commerce business. "In some parts, yes. Like their marketplace is most definitely an e-commerce platform but not the entire platform." While it has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, Chima says that Facebook cannot claim a full-fledged exemption from the e-Commerce Rules.
Facebook, on its part, says that it proactively enforces its 'Facebook Community Standards' — a policy detailing what is and isn't allowed on the platform. This includes a wide variety of things including spamming, fraud, and deception. It also publishes the 'Community Standards Enforcement Report' which is a quarterly report to "more effectively track our progress and demonstrate our continued commitment to making Facebook and Instagram safe and inclusive".
Despite these, more and more stories of consumer fraud are being known. Facebook's enforcement report also does not have a specific data point for fraudulent ads and takedowns, making it more difficult to track how much effort the platform is putting to curb such malicious activity.
"What we need now are impacted individuals determined enough to go to consumer courts or civil court and fight out such cases because we do not have independent authorities who are policing these tech platforms," Chima said.
Given 61% Indians are now part of the internet — up from 21% in 2017, lack of awareness about scam ads has also played to scam artists' favour. In Tribhuvan's case, one of the directions from the consumer commission to Facebook was to run awareness campaigns.
Some do agree with the demand for greater liability on tech platforms but also press on the need for consumer awareness.
"It's on us to see the red flags and not get excited or panicky when we get those messages. And if not, then remember, you get scammed once and stay wiser and vigilant forever," Ankit Mathur, a marketing strategy expert told Decode.
Ankit Sharma, Group Head of Media Strategy at digital marketing company FCB Kinnect told Decode that there's a need for better policies from Facebook to curb the menace of fraudulent ads.
"It's not just stricter policies and verification processes that are needed, they are already being evolved with the changing market scenarios. But consumers need to be educated on how to identify and avoid scams. A good example of this is the WhatsApp awareness campaign, which was aimed at curbing misinformation and scams on the app," Sharma said.
As for Tribhuvan, the fight continues. "Facebook is a rich company, they don't care about a poor man like me. But I trust the courts to do justice. We are even ready to go to the Supreme Court, Facebook has to be made accountable," he said.