Satnam Narang, principal research engineer at security company Tenable, listed his findings in a long blog post, pointing out that people whom he labelled opportunists were using Instagram to advertise these products.
Both Facebook and Instagram banned ads and commercial listings for medical face masks on 7 March. Instagram went a step further on 19 March, Narang said, also banning ads for hand sanitiser, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits.
"However, despite the ban, advertisements continue to appear on Facebook and Instagram, some as recently as March 26," Narang said.
An ad for toilet paper on Instagram.
Narang said that many of the ads made no mention of COVID-19. "They do, however, talk about protecting oneself from 'harmful particles' and how to 'stay protected at all times' while referencing N95 masks or harmful viruses and bacteria, implying a connection to COVID-19," he added.
One reason why people were able to place these ads despite the ban was because one did not need an Instagram account to run ads on the platform. Instead, one could use one's Facebook Page.
Narang said while some people appeared to be opening Instagram accounts to place these ads, there were others who appeared to have opened Facebook accounts recently to indulge in the same practice.
Some advertisers promised to donate masks and other equipment to hospitals if a visitor made a purchase.
"In addition to creating new pages, opportunists have also compromised the accounts of existing pages and used them to promote these products," he said.
"The Facebook Page for a Greek restaurant in Zimbabwe (above) was compromised and used to push an advertisement for surgical masks to Instagram. The page does not appear to have been maintained since 2008."
He said anyone could report these ads to Instagram from within the ads themselves. "Click the three dots on the bottom (Instagram Stories) or top (Instagram Feed) of the advertisement. Click 'Report Ad' and then select 'It’s a scam or it’s misleading'," he advised.
“Over the last few months, COVID-19 has been top of mind for most of the world, enabling opportunistic individuals to capitalise on fears and uncertainties. Whether it’s cyber criminals, scammers or those seeking to make a profit from the scarcity of essential goods, COVID-19 has proven to be a successful tool and it will continue to serve as one until the end of the pandemic.
"That’s why it is important for individuals to seek out information from credible sources, be wary of unsubstantiated cures, refrain from buying masks and purchase essential products from verified sellers or retailers. What we’ve seen so far from these opportunists is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, I anticipate many more campaigns to come.”