The Debunk.org team has identified a network of several hundreds of Facebook accounts (groups and pages) and web pages serving for the selling of healthcare products (ab)using disinformative content in the Balkan countries. The complex network of accounts disguises the real producers and distributors, but one of the former employers of the company our team spoke to said the Balkan network is just a fragment of the company's operations run in all of Europe.
An unidentified individual or a group of people have established an elaborate network of companies and an even more elaborate network of social media accounts and web pages to sell healthcare products, often (ab)using dubious content and advertising through promising fast and miraculous ways of healing diseases and conditions that modern medicine has not even heard of yet.
Debunk.org analysts have identified several hundreds of social media accounts (Facebook pages and groups) and web pages that are part of this network and are targeting the Balkan region countries (namely Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina). This is just a part of a broader network that, according to the information that Debunk.org analysts managed to obtain from one of this company’s former employees, is being run from Georgia but originally Ukranian, although this cannot be confirmed with certainty. According to available data, these products are being sold all over Europe since their ads are being produced in many different European languages.
The analysis has shown that the unidentified individual(s) have often been using a mixture of facts and false claims to generate interactions and interest. Their end goal is to sell their products of unidentified origins (i.e. producer/s), and equally doubtful efficiency, for a price that far overcomes that of their equivalents available in pharmacies: each of the products is being sold for 39 euros a piece.
Connections within this social media cluster of nearly 300 groups and pages on Facebook can be classified as coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB), but are not easy to detect. Although not all data about who is running these accounts are available, Debunk.org has established that they are part of the same organised network, which is most probably created in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but, due to the lack of any major language barrier, this network targets all of the Balkan region countries.
This elaborate network was most likely set up not just to sell the products, but also to deceive and hinder any attempts to find authentic testimonies of the product users or information about the producer. As a result of a Google search for 15 product names followed by the words ‘scam’ or ‘testimony’, Debunk.org’s analysts have identified around 200 pages. Alongside mimicking authentic reviews and testimonies, the articles use the same deceitful practices as the advertisements do: (ab)using the stock or fake photos claiming to be from real customers or scientists, or the statistics with actual sources to back the claims.
The companies behind the network in the Balkan region are mostly run under the name Limited Charm and the locations of their alleged headquarters in all countries of the region, according to the findings of regional fact-checkers, do not seem to be authentic, or suitable for any kind of production. For example, the Montenegrin branch under the name “Limited Charm” has reported 1.4 million EUR in revenue for 2022 to the tax authority.
Contrary to the claims made in alleged testimonies of the customers and Facebook accounts which praise the products as one-of-a-kind, the testimonials collected by Debunk.org analysts tell a different story: a story on how they got tricked, often for a very large sum of money, with no improvement of their health condition, but constantly harassed by persistent staff selling the products.
“There is a cure for diabetes; anyone with foot fungus will die in 14 years maximum; 80 per cent of the Montenegrin population is infected with parasites and 20 per cent of Montenegrins will die in 2023 due to cardiovascular diseases.”
This is just a part of the claims made in advertisements for healthcare products shared on Facebook and the internet in general. Findings of modern medicine and rare authentic testimonies of users that can be found online prove that all of those miraculous promises are fictitious.
Except for being false, all the statements have another thing in common: although the ads refer to different products, all of them are allegedly produced by a company called Limited Charm. The fact-checkers in the Balkan region have warned about the advertising “tactics” this particular company has used on several occasions since 2021. However, this did not stop the malicious content from being spread online.
Despite their publicly declared unacceptance of sharing “harmful health disinformation”, Meta algorithm (and staff) failed to recognise and flag such dubious content. Facebook users in the Balkan region have been exposed to false advertising of said products for at least two years. Approximately 70 percent of the content on the analysed cluster of accounts has been proven to be false. Besides the fact that this content serves the financial interests of manufacturers and distributors of these products, the mere existence and widespread false advertisement of these products might cause serious health consequences and issues.
This analysis aims to explain:
the scope of the network run by Limited Charm company,
the manipulative tactics used by this network.
Company Network Analysis
While all of the Facebook product pages feature links to the webpage lijeciprirodno.info in their About section, this particular page has no additional data on the producers or distributors of these products. Furthermore, a number of analysed ‘reviews’ and ‘testimonies’ praised the healthcare products as goods of worldwide popularity that are being advertised even by US television hosts such as Dr. Oz or Oprah Winfrey, yet none of them listed any actual company behind it. Thus, the Debunk.org team got hold of several packages of one of the advertised products in an attempt to identify the producer. The data on the packaging says that the product was made in Bosnia and Herzegovina, by the company Monetize Ad.
Monetize AD, as its website says, is a digital marketing agency. The company under this name is registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina, under shared ownership of two people: Ajdin Brković and Mersad Vejzović. Monetize Ad has been praised by some media as very successful in the field of digital marketing but not mentioned as a producer of any healthcare products.
This company does not seem to have branches in the Balkan region directly, but one of the companies that Monetize Ad lists on its website as its subsidiaries, called Limited Charm, does.
Unlike the website of the mother company, Monetize Ad, the link they share to the website of Limited Charm has a list of products that are being promoted on Facebook and via proxy AD pages (ab)using dubious advertising practices. On the other hand, none of the pages or groups on social media has direct links to limitedcharm.com but to lijeciprirodno.info. However, despite the difference in the links, they promote the same products, but they use different methods or strategies to advertise them. Limited Charm has no false testimonies or pictures, it does not feature claims about miraculous healings of incurable conditions unlike the proxy ad pages or some of the content on social media.
The company Limited Charm has branches registered all over the Balkan region and this network (and its dubious advertising practices) has already been under scrutiny of fact-checkers from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fact-checkers and media in Serbia and Croatia over the past few years have, as well, on several occasions pointed to the false claims made in different adverts for the said products. However, none of this seems to have influenced the operations of Limited Charm.
The Montenegrin branch of the company was registered in August 2020. According to the data available online, it is also registered as a marketing agency and its total revenues in the annual financial report increased by over 50 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, from cca. 400,000 to cca. 650,000 EUR, and the following year by an impressive 200%, with revenues of approximately 1,4 million EUR.
What follows is a tabular representation of individual cases which demonstrate specificities of the manner in which these fraudulent products are being advertised and promoted online:
Unintelligible and/or meaningless content
The products are often promoted using articles that are written using unintelligible language. This does not only entail typical translation errors which might occur when translating a text from, for example, English to Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian, but also introducing some non-existing words and sentences which do not make any sense, sometimes even switching the topic of the article halfway within its text.
A promotional article about the Parazol tea, which allegedly helps to cure different sorts of parasites attacking the human body, suddenly starts talking about Parazol being a rock and roll band from Budapest, Hungary.
An article which should allegedly inform the reader on where to buy the anti-cellulite Celluless gel, and what are the previous users' experiences, is written using completely non-understandable language. This includes mixing up English and Serbian words, as well as mentioning non-existent terms, such as the “Mayonnaise Institution” and “Borat Cellulite”.
Attempted search engine optimization (SEO)
If a person tries to search the name of a particular product online, followed by the word ‘scam’ or ‘fraud’, they might encounter several articles emphasising that the product in question is not a scam, despite what other sources might say. This is most likely done in order to affect the search engine optimization.
DiaTea A short promo article about the allegedly anti-diabetes tea DiaTea uses the word prevara (fraud) nine times. This is most likely done to influence the search engine optimization and attempt to convince people who are looking into the product being potentially fraudulent that it is, in fact, not a scam, and that any such allegation is just a rumour/theory/ disinformation.
YouTube video design
These fraudulent products are further advertised using videos that are uploaded on YouTube, which most often have a very simple design: random stock video footage or collages of still images, combined with a little bit of text and voice-overs explaining why the product is allegedly beneficial, urging the viewer to order as soon as possible.
Parazol The anti-parasite Parazol tea is, like other similar products, advertised via short YouTube clips, including this one, where an automated voice-over, claiming to be the voice of a medical doctor (“Dr. Marko”), introduces the viewer to all the alleged benefits of this product.
The video is filled with stock footage and pictures of certificates which are meant to convince the audience of the product's efficiency and authenticity.
HyperTea This video advertising the antihypertensive product HyperTea, is also using the same automated voice-over as the aforementioned video on Parazol, this time claiming to be the voice of a certain cardiologist going by the name of Dr. Evan.
The clip is also full of overly dramatic random stock footage, and it entails a warning about other similar products that are on the market being a potential health risk to the consumer.
Interestingly, this promo video also mentions that the product is being paid for upon delivery, and that there is also a money-back guarantee period.
Falsified official statistics
The persons promoting these products online do not hesitate to make up official statistics and attribute them to relevant international organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This Facebook post includes falsified statistics, attributed to the World Health Organization, according to which “85% of men above the age of 30 suffer from chronic prostatitis”.
Forged celebrity testimonies
For the purpose of gaining more traction, falsified testimonies attributed to popular Balkan celebrities, including television hosts, singers, and even famous medical doctors.
Parazol The people behind Parazol used the name of famous Serbian television personality Olivera Kovačević to promote their fraudulent product, claiming that she healed herself using Parazol following negative experiences with regular medicine.
Kovačević personally denied this in 2020, and announced a lawsuit against the liable persons.
In 2022, a made-up interview with Serbian pulmologist Dr. Branimir Nestorović, where he allegedly promoted the PreNatal tea as a cure for fertility issues, was published.
Number of admins
We have identified 24 Facebook groups that are being administered by Facebook pages that advertise different healthcare products. These groups, according to their names, mostly focus on religion, spirituality or lifestyle. Nearly half of the groups were created on three different dates in August 2021, and January and March 2022.
They have an impressive audience size, nearly half a million in total, or cca. 20,000 per group. The total number of administrators in the groups is nearly 3,000; each group has ~120 administrators on average.
The Gephi graph illustrates the interconnections within the mentioned cluster of groups, demonstrating the relationships based on shared administrators. Notably, there are substantial overlaps. While the total number of administrators amounts to nearly 3,000, only 275 Facebook accounts manage the entire network.
Out of these 275, the vast majority are Facebook pages (272), while the remaining three are private profiles. None of the three private accounts that allegedly administer these groups seems to be authentic, judging by the general appearance of their profiles, i.e. names, pictures, and overall visible online activity.
One of the administrator accounts in question: a fake-sounding name, the Mercedes logo as a profile picture, no visible personal data, URL translating to “Some Minecraft Player”, as well as several other profiles using either the same or very similar name
The data regarding Facebook group administrators is accessible. However, Facebook pages can also act as group administrators and information regarding the person managing the Facebook page is not publicly accessible. Therefore, the actual individuals acting as administrators remain undisclosed in this case.
The administering accounts, i.e. pages and a few fake private profiles can be divided into two clusters:
Facebook pages advertising products, ~57 pages, and
Facebook pages that mostly share religious, lifestyle and spirituality-related content, ~218 pages.
The Gephi visualisation on the left shows Facebook groups (red dots) and their administrators (gvisualizationreen dots) as well as their mutual connections. The “green dots” differ in colour depending on how many of the 24 identified groups they administer. The cluster that stands out in dark-green colour consists of the pages that advertise the products.
Another visualisation points to the fact that the whole network of approximately 300 groups and pages that
administer them is built around the pages that promote healthcare products. The connections between the administering accounts (mostly pages) can be seen based upon the shared Facebook groups they administer. The entire cluster that gravitates toward the upper right corner is, again, the product advertising pages (more on the link under the graph). https://debunkorg.github.io/MNE/admins/
All of these product pages have available links to lijeciprirodno.info in the About section, i.e. the exact link to the product they advertise.
Although Facebook does not disclose the individual, some pages do have available data on how many administrators there are and where they are based. Out of 57 pages that advertise products, 33 have publicly available data: all of them are being run by 460 accounts in total which are based in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while four pages have additional four co-administrators from Serbia and one from Argentina. As the individual links to the profiles, i.e. the identity of administrators, are not disclosed it is impossible to establish if there are similar overlaps and connections in this administrator's network as the one that was established in the case of the Facebook groups.
The audience of this cluster of product-promoting Facebook pages is 20 times smaller than the audience of the Facebook groups they administer. In total, 57 pages have approx. 57,000 followers or 1,000 on average.
The second identified network of pages administering the said groups, pages that predominantly focus on religion, spirituality or lifestyle, also has a significantly larger audience than the ones promoting the products. These pages have a total of over 1,75 million followers, more than 8,200 on average.
This network has available data for nearly all pages (except for 7 out of 218) where the administrators are coming from. In total, there are 4 804 administrators from Bosnia and Herzegovina and 72 pages have co-administrators from other countries: 72 from Serbia, two from Argentina and two from Indonesia. On average, each page has 23 administrators. Same as in the case of the product-advertising pages, here is also, due to the lack of available data, impossible to establish if there are any overlaps, or are all of these individual profiles.
Except for the above listed, the groups and pages have in common the dates they were established. A total of 36 of the accounts that are part of this network were created between 26 and 29 November 2021. Additional 63 groups and pages were set up on just five different dates in 2022. A similar trend of multiple pages and groups being opened within a day, can be seen through 2019 - 2023. Only a few of the accounts have been established prior to 2019.
The names majority of groups, 17 out of 24, and several dozens of pages that administer them, signal that they are dedicated to religious topics and celebrating Orthodox Christianity, well known Orthodox monasteries or saints, even though none of these accounts is run by, or has any associations with, any of the Orthodox Churches in the region. The names are often very similar, different in an additional or lacking interpunction sign such as a comma, a dot, or a slash or even swapping letters (for example, typing “z” instead of “ž”). The same pattern can be seen in names of other pages that administer groups and that are not religion related. In these cases, the topic is usually lifestyle, spirituality or relationship and love-related messages (such as “Love”, “Love and friendship”, “Love is the point”, “Love is the point of life”... )
Except for the Facebook groups and pages, a similar pattern can be noted when talking about the websites these social media accounts share: saznajemo.info, pravoslavci.website, and snagavere.info. Although none of these websites seem to have any connections with the network intended to advertise and sell products, using the Maltego software, Debunk.org analysts team, managed to identify significant overlaps in internet “infrastructure” used by lijeciprirodno.info, a website that all of the Facebook product pages mentioned in their About section, and the websites they share.
Graph 1: Connections between website lijeciprirodno.com and saznajemo.info, pravoslavci.website and snagavere.info
This analysis covered 914 content pieces in total. These analysed content pieces included 676 Facebook posts and 238 proxy ad pages and alleged review and testimony pages related to the products. As some of the Facebook posts also included links to different webpages, there are a total of 926 content pieces that were analysed.
Chart 1: Mentions by sources
Although the Facebook posts prevailed in the analysed sample, the fact is that most of the content shared on this social media is actually coming from other websites. Once this is taken into account, some 335 content pieces are coming originally from social media, and the remaining 591 are either websites or the website content simply shared on Facebook.
It is also worth noting a couple of things which are not seen in the previous chart: none of these content pieces had been created and published by individual people with names and surnames, although the analysis included hundreds of social media posts shared on different groups. Rather, all of the posts are the content made by Facebook pages that are part of this network, usually the pages that administer the analysed groups. Said groups have 20,000 followers on average, so it is highly unusual to see no content apart from the posts written by admins.
This analysis featured 578 different sources, that is 340 Facebook pages and groups and 238 websites. The highest activity was noted in three Facebook product pages: for weight loss and tea against parasites, and the antifungal gel, while all the others had less than two per cent share in the media sources.
Half of the content analysed were adverts. These pieces of content are directly promoting a specific product, informing the reader about its alleged benefits, and providing tips on how to purchase it, usually combined with some falsified reviews from users and/or medical specialists, as illustrated by several examples mentioned throughout this analysis.
Chart 2: Share by topics
Approximately every third piece of content was dealing with a topic that can be classified as “Lifestyle”. These stories mainly dealt with issues and stories which have a universal appeal (and can thus attract a lot of engagement), including a heartwarming story of a child forming a bond with a man working in the local garbage disposal agency.
Notably, the authors do not share stories related to divisive topics, such as politics or economics, but they delve into stories touching upon lifestyle, health, and spirituality. Many of such stories revolve around alleged miracles performed by certain Orthodox Christian saints, most often St. Basil of Ostrog and St. Paraskeva of the Balkans.
The remaining topics are mostly related to health. These posts often included simple advice on how to resolve a health-related issue, or they shared emotional stories about certain people that managed to combat a serious disease.
Chart 3: Sources by topics
The vast majority of content shared on social media accounts in this network from various websites is related to “lifestyle” topics unrelated to the analysed products, but do have product ads incorporated in them. These stories are being published by websites that are not very popular (most of them do not even have a ranking on relevant sources about the number of total visits), but they tend to share and reshare old stories that provoke a strong emotional reaction. Approximately a dozen of websites that are shared by the analysed Facebook groups and pages, like those social media accounts, have connection Orthodox Christianity saints in their names, although they have no official connection to the church.
The stories that are being shared on Facebook and that were originally published on the mentioned websites tend not to have any dates at all, creating a perception that it is a matter of the current moment and not something that happened several years ago. The content pieces rarely have the source and almost never an author, but they do have incorporated ads for the analysed healthcare products.
Nearly 70 per cent of the total analysed content was labelled as dubious. Out of 914 pieces, over 550 were marked as false or misleading content, in additional 182 content pieces it was noted that the authority was being misused, and in 170 of them the picture mentioned in the text was being abused. The ads are using a mix of true and false claims.
Chart 4: Mentions by authenticity
Several instances of real people’s names and images being used in combination with completely made up stories were noted. This included some cases about celebrity figures coming from countries of the Balkans. One of the more notable examples is a forged interview of Serbian singer Ana Nikolić, where she allegedly promoted the weight loss GoSlim tea. A more recent example, published in September 2023 by the Montenegrin fact-checking organisation Raskrinkavanje, demonstrated an instance of abuse of both the credibility of a medical doctor, currently serving as the head of the main ambulance in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, and the national public broadcaster (RTCG). Namely, the people behind HyperTea (a product claimed to assist in battling hypertension), manufactured a story, claiming it to be published on RTCG’s news portal, on the alleged arrest of the aforementioned doctor due to him "stating the truth" about the usual medicine used for treating blood pressure-related problems being inefficient and only one product - “HyperTea” - being able to help combat these issues. Other similar instances of this were presented in the fourth chapter of this analysis.
Chart 5: Sources vs authenticity
Debunk.org team has also spoken to one of the former employees of the company who took a job as a call-centre operator for a couple of months.
The ex-employee, whose name shall remain undisclosed, confirmed that they operated in the region and that they were instructed to provide a false address so that the customers could not trace back to them the company allegedly in Zagreb because they were calling potential customers in Croatia. Also, the person we spoke to says the employees spoke Russian among themselves and were told that the company headquarters were in Georgia, although that part our source cannot confirm with complete certainty.
Also, several other testimonies that the Debunk.org team acquired tell a different story from the one that can be seen on official advertising channels. Dozens of comments on one of the sponsored posts for the gel Nautubone, that remained unhidden or were not deleted, claim that the product is “inefficient”, “a lie”, “a scam”, etc. A part of the ad claimed that you get one package for free, while one of the people commenting claims that “it is a lie they give one for free with that one you have to order additional three, do not order”.
Similar testimonies were shared by the people who have tried other products they advertise - social media users claimed that it is a scam and that products are inefficient.
Conclusions and recommendations
In the months this analysis has been done several “new” products appeared in this network while a part of “old” products seems to have re-appeared under new names and redesigned packages. Although they were not part of this analysis, they are part of the same advertising/selling infrastructure. The pace at which new products emerge shows that learning about the brand using dubious practices does not make us scam-proof.
The analysed network seems to be just a fragment of a much larger web of internet pages and social media accounts scamming people all over Europe into buying their products of unconfirmed efficiency. The person or a group behind this has been successfully running their trans-border business avoiding any legal repercussions for years. The revenue that the companies related to these products produced just in the Balkan region are not negligible either, and - according to the available data - amounted to several million euros over the last couple of years. Several reports by independent fact-checkers over the past few years have drawn no attention from the authorities in the Balkan region countries, even though the reports about media hosts or stealing identities of medical doctors in the advertisements made it to the headlines.
We have been exclusively dealing with what the web pages and social media accounts posted. The Debunk.org team did not analyse the content of the products nor prove them (non)efficient or (un)harmful. The former employee of the company selling products said that products are not dangerous, but not miraculous cures either, more of a placebo, as they were told by the superiors.
Except for the network of social media accounts and internet pages, an elaborate structure of true and false claims, as well as those that are somewhere in the middle, has been constructed. The websites of the Limited Charm and its mother company Monetize Ad do not promise cures for incurable conditions. The alleged independent reviews, although false on many grounds, also rarely make promises which exceed the achievements of modern-day medicine: these “reviews”, although they unanimously praise the products as very efficient, never mention the actual producer. They aim to maintain a neutral style or at least the perception about it, but also several common rhetorical tactics that are being (mis)used to persuade have been identified - made-up stats, made-up testimonies, made-up journalists, etc.
The proxy ad pages are a zone where wishes come true. That is where the manufacturers and distributors promise a solution for all of the health conditions which are persistent, require a lot of discipline and determination to be held under control, and usually do influence the quality of life significantly, but are not deadly diseases. All of their products are resolving issues, including psoriasis, diabetes, arthrosis, varicose veins, and eye-related issues that cannot be solved without surgery, at an unprecedented pace in comparison with other products. Besides promising results that medicine has not heard of yet, they use fake pictures, names, doctors, scientists, testimonies, certificates, interviews, and websites to reaffirm their claims.
The Google algorithm also failed to recognise some heavily search-engine-optimised texts. The alleged independent reviews are full of SEO phrases “unnatural” and misplaced in the text, such as “PRODUCT NAME + scam”, yet all of them are placed as the first page results on Google search. The Facebook algorithm also failed to recognise that this network of groups and pages is the result of inauthentic behaviour.
Avoid giving away any of your contacts, provide as little personal details as possible, and make sure that you have a way to contact the seller of the product.
This analysis has shown that the willingness of buyers to leave their phone numbers to an unknown entity is essential for this business model. Avoiding giving contacts is rarely possible, but be very cautious about whether the communication is a two-way one or not, i.e. do you have an appropriate way to contact the seller of the product in case of need?
Learn everything you can about the product you are buying, and in particular, the producer and the distributor.
If you have trouble finding data about this, it is usually not a good sign. No company has an interest in remaining unknown if it produces products that are good, efficient and, as the ads claim, even revolutionary in the treatment of some conditions.
Google everything, and then Google everything again.
Deceitful practices, with strong search engine optimization (SEO) skills, can even create a veil of authenticity. The entity running the network analysed in this research has managed to create approximately a dozen of content pieces for each product, which appear on the first page of Google search results and allegedly provide neutral reviews and authentic testimonies. All of those turned out to be false. It also turned out that these websites are connected to the official websites selling the fraudulent products in question.
Double-check your results. Search for the mentioned doctors, experts, and scientists and check their alleged certificates, organisations, or institutes that developed the product.
Alongside fake scientists, medical doctors, and false testimonies, fake (stolen or stock) photos usually come as well. Make sure to reverse-search images and look for the source. That is how the Debunk.org analysts found several proxy ad pages which were using the same photo with a different name or caption, depending on which country was their target audience.
Click on every page segment
Webpages with dubious content often mimic authentic media. Although their headers might look real, they are usually not, meaning that, if you click on other page segments, those will simply not work nor will they redirect you anywhere.
Check all hyperlinks in the text
False reviews and testimonies sites tend to add hyperlinks to their content pieces. This gives a perception of authenticity. However, in this analysis, we have come across a few cases when a text just mimics a hyperlink, blue and underlined, while the majority of these hyperlinks just redirect to other content pieces on the same webpage.
Be careful with “authentic testimonies”
Comments are easily moderated, i.e. deleted. First, be aware of where exactly you are reading the comments. If it is the site of the manufacturer, you are highly unlikely to find any negative comments. In this analysis, we have identified multiple websites with dozens of fake testimonies - not just on selling and advertising pages, but on some pages which pose as health & beauty magazines, as well.
This project was financed by the German Federal Government.