Fraud alert: Use caution when talking to ‘old friends’ on Facebook

Facebook is a terrific tool for staying in touch with old friends, former classmates, family, and community members. Unfortunately, like other popular social media platforms, it also attracts scammers looking to abuse the system for their own gain. We’ve recently heard from nearly a dozen consumers who have contacted about scammers using Facebook’s Messenger service to try to defraud them by posing as long lost friends.

The set-up for these scams is remarkably consistent. Consumers who sent us complaints report that these scams begin when they receive a message on Facebook Messenger from someone impersonating a former classmate or an old friend. When the recipient responds, the scammer strikes up a conversation to build trust. Once trust is established, the impersonator urges the consumer to send a text message to a number the scammer controls to get information on a grant, prize, or even government stimulus funds. When the victim texts the number, they are urged to pay an up-front fee and/or supply personal information (Social Security number, bank account/credit card information, etc.) to collect the non-existent money. Victims who do send the money are then urged to send even more money until they catch on. Unfortunately, the money is often sent via wire transfer or gift cards, which are extremely difficult or impossible to stop or reverse.

While this scam is not new, the request to take the conversation off Facebook Messenger and on to text message is a new twist. This is likely due to the scammers trying to evade anti-fraud technology employed by Facebook.

Here are tips to reduce your risk of falling victim to this scam:

Don’t immediately assume your Facebook friend is who they claim to be. Thanks to widespread data breaches, it is not difficult for scammers to get the information they need to compromise a Facebook account. If you receive a message from someone you have not spoken to in a long time, do not assume that the message is legitimate. The safest course of action is to simply ignore the message.

Test them. If you do engage in a conversation and become suspicious, you can try to verify the identity of the person messaging you by asking them a question only they would know (i.e., who was our 9th grade English teacher?).

Beware requests to take conversations off Facebook Messenger. Complaints we have received often describe requests to move conversation from Facebook (where they can be monitored) to text message. This is a big red flag for fraud.

Anyone who asks you to send money to get money is swindling you. If you are asked to pay money to collect a prize, grant, stimulus check, or any other type of reward, it is a scam.

Turn on two-factor authentication and encourage your friends to do the same. One of the reasons this scam occurs is that consumers tend to re-use passwords across multiple websites (your email and Facebook account, for example). That means that if your username and password are compromised at one website, scammers can use that information to try and compromise your account at other websites. An effective way to reduce the risk of this is to turn on two-factor authentication. This will require anyone trying to log in to your Facebook account to supply a special code (typically provided via text message or an authentication app) before they can log in.

If you suspect that you have become a victim, report it immediately. You can file a complaint at via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can investigate and help put fraudsters behind bars.

Sign up for the #DataInsecurity Digest

Scammers coming out of woodwork to prey on vulnerable

Today’s economic news is grim. Nearly 40 million Americans have found themselves without employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the newly jobless, state unemployment insurance benefits are a lifeline that helps them keep the lights on and provide food for their families. Unfortunately, the combination of billions of dollars in federal stimulus money flowing to state unemployment funds and the tens of millions of new claimants has created a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity for identity thieves: unemployment benefits scams.

According to the Secret Service and media reports, organized rings of criminals are working to siphon off unemployment insurance payments, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, intended for workers who have been laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the state of Washington, for example, scammers reportedly made off with nearly $1.6 million in a single month. This scam is reportedly even affecting consumers who have not yet lost their jobs.

The recent spike in this type of scam is unfortunately not unique. When news captures the public’s attention—think major hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and economic slowdowns—scammers come out of the woodwork to take advantage of legitimate fears and concerns. In today’s coronavirus environment, there is an unprecedented opportunity for criminals to use the public’s fears about the virus and the resulting economic downturn to defraud consumers.

Since the pandemic began, NCL’s project has seen an uptick in complaints about a variety of scams preying on increasingly vulnerable, financially strapped, and fearful consumers.

“Scammers running phishing schemes, stimulus check fraud, and even pet adoption scams have all been working overtime to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to defraud consumers,” said John Breyault, director of NCL’s campaign. “We forecast these scams will continue to increase and evolve and are eager to get the word out about how Pennsylvanians can protect themselves.”

Over the last several months, NCL has devoted monthly Fraud Alerts to giving consumers the tools to spot and avoid some of the many types of scams related to COVID-19. Alerts have featured the most pernicious types of scams that are increasing due to coronavirus, ranging from job scams to increased reports of fraudulent robocall activity.

“As the coronavirus has upended daily life, robocall operators have quickly shifted to blasting out spam phone calls offering all manner of coronavirus-related products and services,” said Breyault. It’s estimated that at least one million robocalls per day are inundating Americans’ cell phones. Fraudulent robocallers are offering air duct sanitation services, work-from-home opportunities, cut-rate health insurance, and immune-system boosting nutritional supplements. Other robocalls have reportedly offered free insulin kits to diabetics, along with free coronavirus testing kits.

“At best, consumers who respond to these calls are setting themselves up to lose money for a non-existent product or service,” said Breyault. “At worst, delaying needed emergency treatments on the belief that a fake coronavirus treatment will save your life could be deadly to you and those you come into contact with.”

In May, NCL hosted a virtual fireside chat with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a panel of consumer protection experts on the growing threat of scams linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. NCL’s Breyault and AG Shapiro discussed what they are hearing from consumers, tactics for reaching the most vulnerable populations, and the importance of collaboration for getting key messages out to consumers.

“The work [NCL] is doing to get the word out is so important,” said General Shapiro. “There will be some people who hear my voice, and some people who hear your voice. But the key is that collectively we are warning people about scams and that we’re working together to share actual information—not myths—and not propaganda by one group or the other.”