Americans are some of the most generous people in the world, donating millions of dollars to charity each year. Every day hundreds of Americans are lured into scams designed to take advantage of that generosity.
Through social media platforms like Facebook, scammers have turned digital social networks to prey on unsuspecting victims. According to Scamwatch the majority of “charity scams” are conducted on social networking sites that rely on data aggregated shared by you and your friends.
Charity scams take a variety of forms but the good news is that most scammers follow a pattern. To help you better identify their methods, here are the 5 Steps that Charity Scammers Use To Target Their Victims on Facebook.
Step One: “Fake Friending” the Victim
In order to deceive their victims, charity scammers begin by creating fake profiles on Facebook. Their profiles often feature stolen images of real people dressed in professional attire for the sake of credibility. Using automated programs, the scammers spam hundreds of Facebook users with friend requests.
When a fake profile is ‘friended,’ it lends the scammer credibility within your personal network. The scammer needs only one person from your network to accept a fake profile friend request in order to appear within your social circle.
Believing this “friend” of a friend must be trustworthy, other Facebook users are more likely to accept requests from the fake profile, thus exposing their own personal information to the scammer.
Step Two: Gathering Information on the Victim
Once ‘friended’ the scammer will analyze all the information that their victims put on their Facebook profile. This process is known as ‘gathering.’
Because Facebook centralizes all of your personal data on one profile, the scammer has access to all of the details that you would only share with close family and friends. Hobbies and activities such as what books or movies you enjoy, where you shop and donate money informs the scammer about your interests.
Details like those above give the scammer powerful knowledge about their target’s interests, which in turn are used to create an effective con.
Step Three: Mirroring the Victim
Scammers will customize their fake profiles to mimic the interests of their target. This technique, called “mirroring”, gives victims a false sense of familiarity. It’s a technique pioneered by Romance Scammers (also known as Catfish).
This technique may use the victim’s natural sense of empathy or friendliness to lower their guard in a situation where they would otherwise be alert.
For instance the scammer may claim to have attended the same university or have a similar degree from another college. They may even like and comment on the things that you like in order to build rapport.
Some victims even report that scammers will engage in small talk or chit chat for weeks or even months before asking for money. All of this is done in order to bypass the victim’s critical thought processes and build a false sense of trust between the victim and the scammer.
Step Four: Pitching the Victim
Once the rapport between the scammer and the victim is established the scammer then makes a “pitch.” They will claim to represent a charity or be running a fund drive for an organization that is need of donors.
Charity scammers often share misleading website links that ask for large sums of money in exchange for gift cards, awards or vacation vouchers. By this time the scammer knows enough about their target to appeal to their personal interests.
Charity scammers may simply rely upon the goodwill of the donor and just ask for money outright. Sometimes they bait their “pitches” with offers of gift certificates and unlimited shopping sprees. If the victim is resistant they will say that time is running out or that there are only so many awards to go around and distribute to the donors.
Step Five: “Piggy-Backing” the Bank Account
Once the victim has taken the bait the scammer will then ask them to wire transfer money to a bank or third party like Western Union.
After the money is wired over it’s too late. The scammer will vanish as quickly as they appeared, and leave the victim without any real information to trace their whereabouts. Because the profiles and names that the scammer impersonates are either fake or stolen there is little that local police can do to track the scammer down.
International scammers may even steal the identity of someone within the States and have the money forwarded to a U.S.-based account and then send the funds offshore. This method is known as “piggy-backing.” Once the money leaves the victim’s account and enters the scammer’s bank it is unable to be traced. The scammer can simply withdraw the money and disappear.
Sadly there is little that victims can do to recover their money. Banks will often refuse to replace the stolen money because the funds were voluntarily wired.
How To Protect Yourself from Facebook Scams
In order to protect yourself from charity scams, it’s important to take certain precautions while using Facebook. Here are a few ways you can protect yourself:
- Never accept a Facebook friend requests from someone you don’t know, even if they are a “friend-of-a-friend.”
- Vet new Facebook friends by confirming their identity within your preexisting social network.
- Double check the identity of a Facebook profile by running the username through Spokeo’s Username Search Tool.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends that you should always verify a user’s online profile before friending them on any social media platform. Even if they appear to be the “friend-of-a-friend” you should screen their name through a trusted source.
Don’t accept the friend request of an online stranger. Even if your pre-existing contacts have accepted the contact within their network, always conduct a back search on the new account. You can also use Spokeo’s People Search to find out whether or not their location, profession and identity align with what’s on their profile.