The art of social media scams and how to avoid them

social media scams

If you regularly read the ZoneAlarm blog, you might think you know all there is to know about keeping safe from scams and tricksters on the internet. You know how to keep your online identity protected, and to be wary of shortened URLs. And you probably have a pretty good idea of how to avoid clickbait (though you may be dying to click that link….) In fact you probably can’t even understand how anyone could ever fall prey to such scams – You might even think that people who do get tangled up in scams have a few loose screws or deserved to get messed over as a punishment for being so gullible.


Anyone can wind up a victim

But judge not your fellow man until you have walked a mile in his Sketchers. Or until you get caught up in a scam yourself (which we hope and pray you never do). See, the truth is that many scams are highly orchestrated endeavors, made up of lots of psychological ploys that might just hit an otherwise intelligent individual at a personal low point in time. For example, a 2014 study by the AARP found that middle age men of average intelligence and financial standing are perhaps most likely to fall prey to financial scams. From the study: “The typical victim of investment fraud is a man. He’s middle-aged, educated, financially literate and white, and he’s under financial pressure” Not exactly your first guess for whom would be most likely to get swindled. But there you have it.

To understand the wide scope of scams circulating on social media at any given moment and those affected by them, just look at the daily news. You’ll find reports of Facebook scams, trying to convince you that you are the lucky winner of free tickets to the Bahamas (all you need to do to redeem your tickets is “click here”!….). Or that you need to verify your account so that you don’t lose it. (you don’t need to verify anything, you won’t lose your account, it’s not legit).

Scams aren’t only on Facebook

And lest you think the problem is limited to the Facebook-o-sphere, think again. Twitter sees tons of tweets daily regarding work-at-home scams and link-based scams that fill computers with malware. Even the ephemeral snaps on Snapchat can support link-based scams. In fact, just about every social media network has scams running rampant on them. To stay undetected, savvy scammers constantly change their game and fine tune their methods to fit each individual platform.


As much as we would all love to believe that “it could never happen to me”, unless your scam-radar is actively up and running, getting duped could happen to almost anyone. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity and persistence on the part of the scammer and a bit of “letting one’s guard down” on the victim’s side.


To illustrate the subtlety and skill involved in some trending scams today here are two very recent examples taken from the news:

Helping out a soldier in need

Just this week, a New Jersey based news outlet told the story of NJ resident who was friended by a person posing as a female sergeant in the Army stationed in Afghanistan. They struck up a friendship and after some time she asked him for a favor – she needed a package containing gold bars (okay, that should have set off some bells, but hey) to be sent out of Ghana and to be forwarded to another person – which clearly she couldn’t do it because she was overseas. She asked him if he could take care of sending the package and she would give him a cut of the money. Thinking his friend was an army officer in need, he obliged and told her to send the package and he would take care of the rest.


Over time, the man sank lots of his money into paying huge lawyer and transfer fees. All the while the “friend” promised to get the money back. But she was in Afghanistan so it was kind of hard to do at the moment, “you know how it is….”  This friend wasn’t really a sergeant in the army nor was she planning on paying him back. Looking back it’s easy to connect the dots but while going through the experience it was much harder to decipher what was what. In the end he lost over $50,000 in the hoax.


Taking advantage of a desperate mom

In another recent social media scam, a woman named Michelle was swindled out of thousands of dollars when she was looking for grants to send her kids to college. The single mother was on perpetual hunt to find online grants to help defray her large bills when a Facebook friend who knew of her plight told her that she had seen her name on a list that was distributing grants. The supposed organization, called the Treasury Grant Fund, was giving out large sums of money to worthy recipients via their Facebook page.


Her friend, convinced that the organization was legit, told Michelle to check it out, which she did, and indeed found her name on the list. She contacted the organization and they told her to fill out papers and she would get her money, though she would have to pay a transfer fee of $400. A few days later she got the certificate for the money but was told that she would need to pay an advance on 1% of her winnings – which came out to $2500. By now she had invested so much time, money and effort in the process and was convinced the whole thing was real, if for no other reason than it was too hard to accept that it wasn’t real.


Can you guess what happened next? The certificate was a fake and she lost $3000


Their methods, they are a’ changin’


The point is that some social media scams are more subtle than others. And as technology evolves, methods evolve as well. You probably know enough to avoid that email from a Nigerian prince that might just be sitting in your inbox who needs your help transferring $ 200 million out of the country – and you seem to be the only person who is trustworthy enough for such a task…


But emerging methods often don’t meet our perception of a classic scam and therefore don’t set off our warning bells. They appear a-okay at first, and even when red lights do come flashing before our eyes, the last thing the human psyche wants to do is admit it’s been fooled, so we keep telling ourselves that “in the end it will be fine, I’m too smart to be had”.


Uh huh, sure.


So what can you do to avoid winding up in a news story about scam victims?


You could swear off social media forever but that’s not realistic for most people, and even then it won’t keep you safe from everything out there. Here are some less hard-core and more practical tips to stay safe:


  • Don’t friend people you don’t know on any social media platform.


  • Make sure your privacy settings are set to high and keep your profile private for all your social media accounts. Go to Facebook’s privacy settings page and make sure you are set up properly.


  • Keep your antivirus program up and running to protect against link-based social media scams.


  • Never trust anyone you don’t know that you can trust implicitly and don’t give any private information over social media. Scammers search public profiles to get information about people and use that information to create tailor-made scams.


Perhaps the most important lesson is that if something seems to good to be true, it probably isn’t true.




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