Warning: Sophisticated New 'Hybrid' Internet Scams Are Leveraging Old Social Media Friendships

Warning: Sophisticated New ‘Hybrid’ Internet Scams Are Leveraging Old Social Media Friendships

Man using a computer
A man using a laptop. Photo via Pixabay

This is the season when a little extra cash comes in handy. Imagine finding out that you have made money on www.bezoseathfund.org.

You’re entitled to some of the money Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is giving away — or so you think.

A quick check of the internet and you learn that, of course, this Earth Fund is the real deal. And it must be the real deal, because news of your incredible luck comes from an old friend you haven’t been in contact with for some time. He says you’re on a list he saw for a big chunk of Bezos’ money, no strings attached.

But there’s no way to confirm anything about the specific gift request. Surprisingly, the same week, another old friend tells you about other possibilities to receive a six-figure sum of money. This time, the news of the recovered money comes from a department chief of the United States Department of Agriculture.

According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s representative on the High-Tech Computer and Technology Crimes Task Force, known as CATCH, these types of online attacks are part of a perfect storm for fraud. . And the Federal Trade Commission confirms that they are increasing.

Besides the lure of money, there are emotional lures that come into play. For example, they make you think you’re reconnecting with old friends over the holidays, said Ryan Karkenny of the district attorney’s office.

“When an old friend reaches out, you reach out,” he said, “it’s an inherent instinct if you see a familiar face or name to respond to.”

Social media scams are the most popular type of fraud, involving one in four cases since 2021, according to the FTC. Reported losses jumped at the height of the pandemic, briefly dipped and are now up 18 times since 2017

I contacted Karkenny after recently receiving these curious Bezos/USDA offers and other similar “surprises” from a number of friends I haven’t been in contact with for some time or with which I only connect sporadically.

A friend is the former Governor of Oklahoma and another journalist who now writes a personal blog. My friend the Governor had died six years ago, and a “new friend” was an actor who had also died. The greetings all started with a simple “HI” message and I recognized several “friends” names as well as someone from “my friend”.

Stacey Wood, a fraud psychology expert and professor at Scripps College, runs a research lab and also works with law enforcement and adult protective services.

“It’s interesting,” she said of the social media communications I had received. “I haven’t seen that. But I saw something similar. I call them “hybrids”.

And so I tracked my conversations with people both living and dead but all alive on Facebook Messenger. All link to individual Facebook pages, with the main Facebook photo corresponding to the Messenger photo.

There are not many details in the Facebook accounts; it varies from page to page. One page had several other people I knew listed as friends. Karkenny advised me never to click on links suggested by Messenger posts, warning that “there are a lot of bad things that can come from clicking on an unfamiliar link without really knowing where you are going.”

What I did was continue a Messenger dialogue with the different characters who reach out to me.

Playing dumb, I dropped questions that I knew how my real friends would react to. Like the former governor who played basketball until the late 70s and was a forward on several senior national teams. I asked on Messenger if he or she was still involved in baseball, and he or she said “yes”. But I knew the governor’s passion was basketball.

Journalist Cecil Scaglione, who was one of my Facebook friends who informed me of my winnings, is now the editor of Mature Life Features. He said, “I didn’t know I had a Facebook page because I don’t use it. I constantly get alerts that I should board.

I put on the fake Scaglione, starting mid-September, wanting to see what he/she/they were doing. The result: a series of communications over a four-week period ensued, intended to be personal and build trust.

Here’s part of that Messenger conversation string:

“I have streptococcus but it’s better”
“Trying to put your head above water”
“Bless you and your loved ones”
“I’m curious if you’ve heard of the prize I just received.”
“It’s the USDA Global Green Grant.”
“I received $100,000”
“Did you know how? »

The fraudster provided a link to the USDA payment as well as a photo of a former department chair. The other messages were along the same lines, all with a link that supposedly leads you to the promised funds.

Eventually, the former governor told me where “my name was on a list” for “the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund program for the year 2022.”

“I received a check for $90,000 from them,” the fraudster wrote. “There are no qualifications needed and it’s not a loan.”

Experts advise that it is important to report suspected fraud. While reporting is unlikely to result in action on individual cases, law enforcement officials say it’s worth the effort. Take the time to report everything you come across because you never know what your complaint may reveal to cyber sleuths who track this type of fraud, Karkenny said.

The FTC reports that people between the ages of 18 and 39 are twice as likely as older adults to report these scams, even though the losses for older people are much higher per victim.

Efforts to get a comment and to have Facebook remove both the bogus pages and posts are ongoing. This information will also be transmitted to the FBI at https://www.ic3.gov/.

Meanwhile, conversations continue with some of my Messenger “friends”.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.

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