If you’ve been using social media for any length of time, you probably think you have a good idea of how to spot trouble. For example, by now you know that the handsome young man claiming to be a Nigerian is really a part of the royal family — although he is very nice, with his flowery compliments. And you’ve probably learned to check with your friends when you receive a duplicate friend request that looks like it came from them.
As savvy as you may be, though, people are still being tricked on social media, losing thousands of dollars and giving hackers and criminals exactly what they need to steal more money from more people. The FTC reports that in 2020 alone, so-called “romance scams” accounted for a loss of $304 million, up 50 percent from 2019. These scams involve the criminal pretending to be someone looking for love online. Once they find a willing victim, they “fall in love,” eventually asking for money to cover anything from an emergency to a plane ticket to meet in person.
As anyone who’s been taken in by one of these cons will tell you, though, once they send the cash, the romance comes to a screeching halt. Often, the victim never hears from the scammer again, ending up with a broken heart and a smaller bank account.
Romance scams are just one of the common schemes running amok on social media. Hackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and going after bigger targets. So how do you spot trouble — and what should you do if you’ve become a victim?
The Telltale Signs of a Social Media Fake
According to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, there are a number of common tactics scammers use to trick unsuspecting people into providing money and information. In addition to romance scams, other common tricks include:
Work from home schemes. Scammers promise huge earnings for very little work, usually charging a fee for a “membership” or “starter kit,” or offer a “free trial” followed by exorbitant monthly fees that are almost impossible to cancel.
Clickbait. You might see a post about a sensational news story, only to click on it and have your maximum security antivirus program alert you that the site is trying to download a virus.
Phishing. You receive an email or text telling you to log in to your account via the included link.
Other common scams include fake quizzes and polls designed to collect information, fake messages saying you’ve won a prize that you need to pay for, and messages impersonating friends attempting to get you to click a link or send money.
These may be the most common scams, but they are not the only ones by far. They also tend to be the most obvious.
Less obvious is the tactic of impersonating a legitimate person or organization, with the intent to get likes and followers, and steal personal information. Scammers will create a fake profile with a similar name, but that includes a slight difference like punctuation or a misspelling. They then get people to like and share, collecting data on all the users. Sometimes, once they’ve collected enough likes, these scammers sell the profile — and all of its followers– to someone else.
To avoid these fakes, do some research before you hit like. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for example, use blue check marks to indicate that a profile belongs to a business or public figure. However, individuals and small businesses can’t get verified, so dig a bit deeper to confirm it’s legitimate. This means:
- Checking when the profile was established. Did they just join?
- Checking the content. What is the person or business posting? Does it make sense for them? Is it original content? Are they engaging? If anything seems off brand, use caution.
- How many friends or followers does the profile have? Are they real people?
Taking a moment to check on the profile and confirm its legitimacy can mean the difference between a positive interaction, and becoming the victim of a scam.
But what should you do if you do think you’ve been caught by a scammer? Depending on the information you’ve provided, you might only need to change your passwords. However, if you’ve provided financial information, you’ll likely need to freeze your accounts and open new ones. You can also freeze your credit reports, which prevents new accounts from being opened in your name.
Ultimately, staying alert, and never providing information that’s not absolutely necessary is the best way to stay safe online. Never send money to anyone you don’t know, and remember: He’s not really a prince.