When Austin, 26, was in his last year of college a few years ago, he was in a precarious financial state. He’d just moved out and was living on his own for the first time, and his part-time job as a social media manager wasn’t paying much.
“I felt like I needed a little boost to push me over the edge and get some credit cards paid off and make sure I had rent secured,” Austin, who requested his last name be withheld, tells Rolling Stone. “Just to give me a break instead of constantly feeling like every paycheck is gone.”
That’s when he came across an ad on the YouTube app that he thought might solve all of his problems. It was from a channel called MrBeast Promos and featured the logo for MrBeast, a.k.a. Jimmy Donaldson, the enormously popular YouTuber known for lavish cash giveaways, and the ad offered an opportunity to win a $1,000 gift card. Austin wasn’t a huge MrBeast fan, but he was familiar enough with his content and his brand for the ad to feel authentic. “He does crazy giveaways all the time and has a ton of money,” Austin says. “That was all my brain needed to be like, OK, let’s run with this.”
After Austin clicked on the ad, though, he quickly realized something wasn’t right. He was directed to download two banking apps, both of which were on the Google Play store, but required him to enter personal information such as his Social Security number. By the time he started downloading the second app, he entered a state of panic. “I think I’m fairly tech-literate,” he says. “But I immediately started stressing out.” He realized that he had likely fallen for referral fraud, a common tactic used by scammers to get people to sign up for various programs so they can skim off referral fees. He immediately froze all of his credit cards, downloaded an app to help track his credit, and watched his bank account to see if anything would happen.
Aside from the embarrassment of opening himself up to possibly being swindled, Austin never suffered any financial repercussions from clicking on the ad. But it created weeks of unnecessary stress for him, and even though he reported the ad to YouTube, he has since seen many versions of it pop up on the platform. He wouldn’t be surprised if others were clicking on it too; after all, he says, MrBeast’s brand as a philanthropist who gives away outrageous amounts of money online is the primary reason why he found it credible in the first place.
Indeed, Austin is far from the only person to have that reaction. MrBeast-related scams are all over the internet — primarily on YouTube, where there are dozens of unlisted channels using the MrBeast name, but also on Facebook and TikTok. Though MrBeast Promos, specifically, appears to no longer be on the platform, YouTube continues to recommend ads to users who are not affiliated with the YouTuber, which are largely posted by unlisted channels that have in some cases racked up tens of thousands of subscribers.
“This is clearly a scam using MrBeast name,” one person recently wrote on Reddit, posting a screengrab of an unlisted channel purporting to be linked to MrBeast. (The channel is no longer on the platform.) “I have seen so many, some even as ads, why doesn’t YouTube do anything about it?”
In response to a request for comment from Rolling Stone, as well as a partial list of ads found in our investigation, a YouTube spokesperson said that the specific ad that Austin had reported was taken down years ago, adding, “We have strict policies in place to protect our users from scams, and our enforcement teams regularly monitor ads across YouTube to ensure that bad actors do not deceive users, including by impersonating celebrities. In accordance with our policies, we terminated several channels and we continue to monitor and remove ads in violation.”
Though a representative for Mr. Beast did not respond to a request for comment, Donaldson himself has spoken up about the scams several times, urging fans to exercise caution. “Hey guys real quick, there are several accounts, pages, and groups trying to impersonate me and my team,” Donaldson wrote in 2019 on his verified Facebook page. “Please know we will NEVER comment, privately message, or send you a friend request asking you to claim a gift, prize, etc… These are all scams.” Earlier this year, he also called out YouTube for hosting spammy comments in the comments sections of videos, saying he “[hates] it with a passion.”
Scammers impersonating celebrities on social media is certainly nothing new (see: the countless Instagram accounts purporting to be Beyoncé DMing fans to ask for $100 in gift cards). John Breyault, vice president of public policy telecommunications and fraud at National Consumers League, says that according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data, impostor scams were the top fraud category reported last year, with the FTC receiving 725,989 complaints and people incurring a total loss of $2.7 billion from such schemes. Breyault says that number is likely a “significant undercount,” due to the fact that many victims of fraud may be too embarrassed to self-report.
“From my experience, impostors will impersonate whomever they think their victim is likely to have trust in or respond to,” Breyault says.
Of MrBeast specifically, Breyault says he is unable to point to any numbers regarding how common of a target he is for celebrity impersonators. Yet he is not surprised that scammers would take advantage of MrBeast’s brand as someone known for lavish giveaways in order to lure unsuspecting marks to give away personal information. Breyault says it is also “not surprising” that scammers would target the audience of a YouTuber, which “tends to be younger” and thus more vulnerable (indeed, according to a poll Donaldson conducted on Twitter earlier this year, nearly 40 percent of his audience is between the ages of 10 and 20).
But young people aren’t the only ones who have fallen for a MrBeast scam. Brooke Duhon, a 49-year-old rage room employee and father of nine from Louisiana, says he discovered MrBeast’s channel after seeing the gaming YouTuber Preston shout him out. He was entranced by the prospect of stumbling onto good fortune. “If I won anything I’d be happy,” he said. “Anything from a simple car to money. But I have very bad luck when it comes to that.”
Duhon joined what he thought was MrBeast’s official fan page, which has a little more than 100,000 followers, and was immediately inundated with posts from people claiming to be associated with the YouTuber, saying that if fans could solve a logic puzzle or answer a question, they could win money. He commented on one post and was messaged by a woman who said she would message him a $2,000 prize if she could send him $30 on CashApp. He caught wise, and blocked her.
“It’s an old scam; people keep revamping it to make it new,” Duhon tells me. “It’s been a ‘live and learn’ kind of life for me. You don’t need to send money to win money.”
Though most large platforms have regulations in place that ostensibly prevent such ads from being promoted — YouTube’s ad policy, for instance, specifically prohibits “impersonating brands or businesses by referencing or modifying the brand content in the ads, URL, destinations or misrepresenting yourself as the brand or business” — it’s immensely difficult for platforms to keep track of them. Breyault refers to ad regulation as “a constant game of whack-a-mole,” yet he strongly feels that the onus primarily lies on platforms like YouTube to ensure better user experiences for those who may be vulnerable to fraud.
“The platforms certainly have a responsibility to police their platforms to make them as safe as possible,” Breyault says. “They have in-place technology and other processes to stop that from happening. But it is not always effective. And far too many of these schemes get through.”
With impostors popping up faster than platforms can take them down, the responsibility largely lies on the consumer to protect oneself from fraud. Having narrowly evaded any negative consequences from clicking on the fake MrBeast ad, Austin keeps a debit card he received from one of the apps he signed up for as a reminder of sorts of his mistake.
“I feel pretty good nothing happened to me, but it’s very scary because you feel so stupid afterward,” he says. “You give them info about your banking history, deeply personal things that can be used against you. It feels bad to be at the receiving end of it.”
Though he primarily blames YouTube for hosting the ad, it was MrBeast’s brand that he says gave him the false sense of security to provide all of that information to a complete stranger.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, he has millions of dollars? Of course he can give away $1,000 gift cards,’” he says of his thought process at the time. “Who knows what he’s up to?
Update Monday, July 31, 3:00 pm: This story has been updated to add further context about the ad Austin saw and its removal from YouTube.