Fans of the president thought they were getting free merchandise for a small shipment fee. Instead, they were signed up for $50-a-month “membership” programs.
The third largest political advertiser on Snapchat this year isn’t a political campaign, party, or interest group. It’s a mysterious marketing company hawking “free” Trump merchandise that legions of angry customers say is just a hook to get their credit card numbers and begin extracting money.
The company, Albbiom Marketing, has reported paying about $418,000 this year for Snapchat ads that were viewed more than 435 million times, according to the platform’s political advertising database. Only two Snapchat advertisers have received more impressions: Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and the anti-smoking group Truth.
Albbiom’s ads offer free Trump flags, t-shirts, hats, and other kitschy memorabilia. Customers need only pay five bucks for shipping. Scores of angry online customer reviews are unanimous on what happens next: people who provide their credit card number are quietly signed up for a “membership” generally costing $50 or more per month, and next thing they know, they’re being billed for a “service” for which they never knew they signed up. As reported by HuffPost, Many customers report that they never even received the “free” merchandise they were promised, and some reported that, while they were able to cancel unwanted memberships, the companies involved refused to refund the fees they’d been charged even when those charges were disputed.
The scam is potentially very lucrative, given the sheer scale of the Albbiom marketing campaign. And according to research compiled by the Alethea Group, a firm that researches and combats online disinformation, as part of the Election Protection Project—and in collaboration with the Global Disinformation Index, a British think tank—Albbiom’s Snapchat ads are just one front in a sprawling network of political advertisers across multiple social media platforms. Alethea linked the effort to a web of related companies across the country with numerous websites hawking similarly dubious merchandising offers.
The full scale of the operation is difficult to know. The Daily Beast was able to link some of the groups Alethea uncovered to other companies and websites with similar branding designed to appeal to Trump voters and conservative Americans. But exactly who is behind the network, and profiting from it, remains a mystery.
The Albbiom network represents just one node in a constellation of profit-driven political advertisers that have sprouted up in the Trump era to try to monetize the intense grassroots enthusiasm—and accompanying demand for political memorabilia—among the president’s devoted core of supporters. With President Trump facing a difficult path to reelection next week, those legions of advertisers may be forced to rethink their marketing strategies in an era where Donald Trump is no longer president, but in which he remains a prominent voice in the U.S. political ecosystem.
For now, though, Albbiom and other Trump-themed merchandising companies are high on the hog. And Albbiom’s research shows how that company in particular has used a network of generically-named websites to try to catch the eyes—and open the wallets— of Trump supporters.
Through websites such as patrioticamerican1776.com and weheartLEOs.com (the latter using an acronym for “law enforcement officers”), Albbiom and seemingly affiliated marketing companies have lapped up “membership” fees from customers who just thought they were paying to ship a single piece of “free” Trump memorabilia.
“This company is a scam!” reads a characteristic review on the Better Business Bureau website for USA Patriot Nation, one of the companies that Alethea’s research linked to the Albbiom marketing campaign. “I never signed up for this membership nor did I receive any goods. I took a survey for a free t-shirt and since May have been getting charged $80 a month for nothing,” the irate customer reported.
Identifying the people associated with Albbiom is not a simple task. Snapchat political ad disclosures say a person named Marud Khan is behind its advertising buys on the platform. But Alethea says it “found no evidence Marud Khan is a real person.” The address for the company listed in Snapchat records is a UPS Store mailbox in Boca Raton, Florida. Corporate documentation lists a different address: another UPS Store mailbox 3,000 miles away, in Elk Grove, CA.
Publicly available information on various Albbiom-affiliated websites, and in ad disclosures for those sites on Facebook, reveal ties to another company called Gold Sky Ventures LLC. Corporate records indicate that Gold Sky Ventures is based in Nevada and run by a man named Amaad Khan. Khan didn’t respond to questions about his business and Alethea’s research findings.
There are other companies involved in the effort that are even more opaque. Alethea’s report identifies one called CoDarr Group, LLC, which appears to be incorporated in Montana. The Daily Beast called the number listed for that firm on various merchandise-marketing websites such as USA Patriot Nation and USA Patriot Mine. A customer service representative answered, but refused to speak with anyone but an “account holder.” She identified her employer as the Great USA Store, another company that has received angry BBB complaints for similar “membership” marketing scams.
The political merchandising scam is just one outgrowth of a larger phenomenon of social media-enabled schemes to monetize political enthusiasm. Social media advertisers have also used political appeals to try to solicit direct donations from unsuspecting Americans, who are often led to believe, falsely, that they’re donating to either a political candidate or a group dedicated to supporting one.
Facebook in particular has been fertile ground for unscrupulous political advertisers looking to extract money from Americans making donations or purchases in line with their political views. Combine that with the platform’s documented use by scammers attempting to pass themselves off as established apparel companies, and you get the sort of Trump memorabilia scams that Alethea highlights in its report.
The Daily Beast has covered similar networks of political merchandise advertisers in the past. One of those networks, run by a Houston-area internet marketed, racked up millions in revenue before scaling down its operations this year.
But election years provide fertile ground for politically-themed cash grabs. And Trump, with the cult of personality that surrounds him, has been a boon for such businesses. Even if he’s defeated next week, that grassroots appeal is likely to persist. And marketing opportunities will likely continue to abound.