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Coronavirus information
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Profiteers are using Facebook ads and a popular e-commerce platform to push “life saving,” “anti COVID-19” masks – even as the platforms have banned this kind of activity.

A Globe and Mail analysis found more than two-dozen Facebook ads for masks since late February. Most of the ads linked to pop-up stores on Shopify, where the masks were often sold at significant markups.

Many of the ads specifically mentioned the coronavirus. In one, a woman wearing a mask sits on a hospital bed. In another, a child wears a mask patterned with teddy bears.

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With the escalation of the pandemic, people have taken to hoarding medical gear, including N95 masks, leading to a worldwide shortage. Public health officials have repeatedly pleaded with people to stop buying masks and other protective material to make the remaining supply available to the front-line health workers who need them most.

Given the shortages, digital advertising behemoths Facebook and Google announced last week that they were temporarily banning all mask ads on their platforms.

Vendors have not been stymied by Facebook’s ban, however. The Globe identified seven ads since Facebook and Google’s announcement more than a week ago.

The ads were identified using The Globe’s Facebook Political Ad Collector, a project that asks readers to share the ads they see on their Facebook feeds by installing a browser extension. The collected ads are then made available for analysis by media outlets worldwide. Because there are relatively few Canadians participating in the project, it is possible that many more mask ads are going unnoticed.

“A life saving Mask for you & your LOVED ONES,” read an ad this week from Gohurs, a website offering a $30 black face mask. Gohurs also offered a “CORONA COVID-19 Rapid Detection test Device Kit,” on sale for $110 from an original $250. A second website, Comona, listed a pack of five N95 masks, complete with an “examination certificate,” for $29.96, about $6 each. Usually, a single N95 mask costs between $1 and $3.

A third site, CVD Mask, advertised a set of 20 simple, blue medical masks – labelled as “anti COVID-19” – for $37 this week, or about $1.85 for each mask. Before the outbreak, these kinds of masks often sold for 20 cents apiece, according to Amazon price-tracking website CamelCamelCamel.

All three stores were hosted on Shopify, and none responded to requests for comment.

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Some ads seemed designed to take advantage of the anxiety surrounding the crisis. Four mask ads used Facebook’s powerful advertising-targeting system to find people interested in the topic of “viruses.”

Given that Facebook and Shopify make money off these ads and shops, they have a responsibility to stay on top of what’s on their platforms, said marketing professor David Soberman at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

That’s especially true in a crisis, he added.

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“I think every time you’re targeting marketing to people who are vulnerable, it’s questionable," he said. “And there are people that are vulnerable right now.”

Prof. Soberman also warned that such ads may lull people into a false sense of security while public-health systems struggle to control the pandemic. “The last thing you want is for people to think these will protect them if they won’t.

“Often, the worst decisions consumers make are when they lack information,” he said.

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In response to the ads surfaced by The Globe, Facebook spokeswoman Erin Taylor responded with a brief statement. “We’re monitoring COVID-19 closely and we will continue to remove ads and commerce listings that sell medical face masks in line with our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency,” she said.

Shopify spokeswoman Sheryl So said price gouging is a violation of the company’s policies and will not be tolerated. Jean-Michel Lemieux, Shopify’s chief technology officer, tweeted this week that the platform had suspended roughly 3,000 stores for selling masks and hand sanitizer at exorbitant prices.

After The Globe alerted Facebook to some of the mask ads, they were taken down, according to Ms. Taylor. The Shopify stores have now been taken down, according to Ms. So.

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

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