As the opioid crisis has escalated in the U.S., more people are looking for information and help online – and some major players in the $35 billion drug rehabilitation industry have been gaming Google, Facebook and other major online platforms to target millions of people with unethical and predatory practices.
Reporter Cat Ferguson began digging into the issue and found some for-profit rehabilitation companies using Google AdWords to deceive addicts and their loved ones who were looking for help. Rehabilitation centers that advertised as independent referral services funneled people to their own facilities, where clients were sometimes overcharged significantly. In some cases, victims of this practice were unaware of what was happening; in others, vulnerable people were subjected to hardball sales tactics. Immediately after Ferguson’s story ran in The Verge, Google halted AdWords sales to rehabilitation centers. A year later, Google resumed sales using a third-party contractor to vet the companies and verify their claims.
Ferguson stayed on the story and discovered that while paid search had changed, deceptive sites at the top of organic search results were still driving people to the same marketing firms. Often, the sites appeared to be independent directories of thousands of centers – but the numbers on the listings all rang to one sales team. She secured a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and wrote two more in-depth articles that exposed how these rehabilitation facilities were manipulating search results and social media platforms.
She revealed, for example, that some large private Facebook groups that were designed to provide support for addicts and their loved ones were actually being run by rehabilitation companies who targeted members aggressively for commercial services.
In addition to changing the practices of some of the world’s largest online platforms, Ferguson’s reporting was cited by a congressional committee that launched an investigation into addiction treatment marketing online, which ultimately led to industry reforms.