[co-author: Charlene Bond]
Social media has evolved tremendously since its inception—it has become part of our everyday lives and helps us stay connected with others. In fact, June 30 has been declared World Social Media Day as a day to celebrate the impact that social media has had on global communication.
However, that very impact makes it easy for criminals to take advantage of the open nature of social media by creating fake accounts and running financial scams. Because social media is used in many ways—as a marketing tool for business, for entertainment, or for interacting with friends and family—it is important to learn how to identify and avoid criminals’ scams.
Identifying Fake Social Media Accounts
Fake social media accounts give criminals and bad actors the opportunity to create mischief or to steal sensitive personal and financial information. Cyber criminals often target students, job seekers, and people perceived to be high value, but anyone could be a target.
Common Types of Fake Profiles
There are three main types of fake social media accounts—each has different attributes and objectives.
- An impostor account is a profile created by a criminal with the intent of impersonating another person or brand. These types of accounts often masquerade as the accounts of celebrities or well-known people or brands so the creator can gain recognition or steal money from unsuspecting fans. The accounts may even include false posts that damage the reputation of the person or company they are portraying. A key characteristic of the impostor account is that, while it may look authentic, it has only been created recently. Most social media accounts show in their profiles when they were created, or you can check the date of an account’s first activity or post.
- A bot account is an automated profile with no human behind the account. Scripts are written to create accounts quickly and give bots different purposes—one script creates an email address; another creates an account on social media with that address. A bot account can be used to spam users with phishing attempts or to spread specific and targeted messages quickly throughout social media. For example, such an account could instigate a data collection scam by posting a ‘quiz’ on Facebook to gather email addresses, to which it will then send targeted scam emails. These types of accounts tend to be active only on specific days and times. Bot accounts often have a suspiciously large number of followers, but do not contain any personal information or have a profile picture. In addition, the account’s posts and opinions are often reposts instead of original content and frequently use hashtags in an attempt to stimulate their account activity and interactions.
- A catfish account is a profile created by a criminal and used to establish a fake identity, with the bad actor pretending to be this fictional persona. The person behind a catfish account tries to establish a close relationship with another person and may eventually ask them to reveal personal or financial information or send money. Components of a catfish account include a fake profile picture that usually comes from Google images and an unrealistically perfect profile. Also, the account usually has few friends and the poster’s language skills may be poor.
Review Connections to Block Fake Accounts
- Determine if the social media account is legitimate. It is important to confirm whether an account is legitimate or fake before interacting and engaging with its content. Some social media platforms include a Verified Badge to help confirm a well-known account’s legitimacy.
- Block suspicious accounts. It is important to not interact with suspicious accounts. This will help to protect the account owner’s identity and ensure no personal or financial information is inadvertently revealed.
- Report the account to the social media platform immediately. We recommend following the on-screen instructions that the social media platform provides—these can typically be found in the platform’s support section. Include a screenshot of the fake profile if possible.
- Check follower requests daily. Reviewing each request separately will aid in identifying fake social media profiles.
- Check other profile connections. It is possible that a fake profile had been accepted in the past. If a linked account appears suspicious, “unfollow” that account.
Financial Scam Red Flags
Social media platforms have become revenue streams for brick-and-mortar and e-commerce shops, and more consumers are turning to social media sites for their shopping needs. While convenient, these accounts may be a facade for a cyber criminal enterprise.
Common Types of Social Media Financial Scams
Criminals often try to convince social media users that they will deliver the best product or service at the best price.
- Seller Scams. A cyber criminal sells an item(s) or offers a service at a price considered to be a sale or discount. The cyber criminal persuades the buyer to authorize a payment for the promised goods and or services before receiving them—and then fails to deliver, usually blocking all further contact from that point on.
- Buyer Scams. Common in the e-commerce realm, this scam tends to target sellers. In an attempt to defraud a seller, the cyber criminal purchases an item online and overpays using a bogus check. After receiving the item, the criminal asks for a refund of the difference via a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) service such as Zelle or Venmo. The seller is now out of a product and money.
- Money Mule Scams. Used to launder stolen money, a money mule is someone who transfers illegally acquired money on behalf of someone else. Their goal is to convince someone to receive funds and transfer the given amount to one or more individuals that they do not know by a wire transfer, mail, P2P service, or money service business.
Understanding how criminals operate their scams, staying alert to red flags, and following best practices will help protect against fake social media accounts and financial scams.
Victims of a fake social media account or a financial scam should report the scam to the social media platform, and notify the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or the FBI at the Internet Crime Complaint Center.