Romance Scams Continue And I Really Need Your Help

If you follow me closely, you know that I’ve been discussing romance scams (also known as “catfishing”) for several years now. In short, a romance scam is where criminals will harvest photos from social media and dating site profiles and then use these photos to set up fake profiles on these same sites to enter into online relationships with individuals for the purpose of defrauding victims out of money. A more technical definition of the term romance scam is provided below.

A romance scam is a confidence trick involving feigned romantic intentions towards a victim, gaining their affection, and then using that goodwill to commit fraud. Fraudulent acts may involve access to the victims’ money, bank accounts,credit cards, passports, e-mail accounts, or national identification numbers or by getting the victims to commit financial fraud on their behalf. (Wikipedia)

For at least eight years, scammers have been using my photos, and the photos of my family, to commit these crimes. I hear from new victims on a daily basis as they frequently find the “real” me through my previous writings on the topic. Unfortunately, many victims find out too late, often after they have already sent significant amounts of money to these scammers and/or have developed a significant emotional attachment. These are deeply complex crimes that rely on a victim’s capacity for love, trust, and good will for the execution of fraud.

Today, I read a victim’s report on a Facebook group that is dedicated to raising awareness of these scammers. The post is worth the read in itself as it highlights some of the tactics used in these cases. Relevant in this case is that the victim pointed to several social media profiles that were created with my photos and the photos of my family. I’ve included screenshots of these fake profiles below with some added context.

First, there is the fake profile using my photos and the name Alex Gallart. The use of a similar first name is notable as past victims have told me that once they found my real identity they would approach the scammers with evidence of me actually being “Alec Couros”. In turn, the scammers would simply say that they use slightly different names or surnames for whatever purpose (e.g., mother’s name, professional name, etc.). In many cases, this additional lie seems to be taken up as plausible.

AlecGallart

Then there’s photos of my real brother George whose fake name is John Williams in this case. Scammers will set up networks of fake profiles and communicate to victims from each of these to validate the key profile’s identity.

JohnWilliam

Then, why not throw in photos of my real daughter as well? In this case, the scammers use the fake name of Clara Gallant to set up yet another profile. Alec Gallart seems to be more authentic with each additional connection.

ClaraGallart

Wait. Not real enough for you? How about we add photos of my real mother in yet another fake profile. As we know, grandmas will never lie to you.

MariaGallart

But I guess that wasn’t enough. A family’s set of fake profiles is pretty convincing, but the scammers felt that they needed to go the extra mile to make Alec Gallart even more convincing. The scamers thought it would be great to exploit my father’s death (he passed away in 2013) by including this photo of my children at his burial mound.

_1__Maria_Gallart

And they also included this photo of my mother remembering my father’s death via Facebook.

_1__Maria_Gallart 2

So there you go. The more complex the social network becomes, the more convincing the scam will be.

So, this is where I need your help. This happens to me every single day. But it’s not just happening to me. It’s also happening to thousands of others on a daily basis. But, Facebook and other social networks just simply do not acknowledge that this problem exists. For instance, there is no specific way to report these accounts as romance scammers in Facebook’s reporting tool. In fact, as you can see by my friend Alan’s experience, these fake accounts will often be deemed as following Facebook’s community standards!

Back in August, Facebook announced 1 billion daily users. I am sure that number pleases their investor’s but I wonder how valid that claim is considering I’ve personally reported many hundreds of fake accounts and there are logically thousands more that I do not know of. Multiply my reality by the thousands of other people’s profile photos that are being used and I begin to feel that Facebook is intentionally not addressing this reality due to their significance.

But even if these accounts don’t really put a dint into the one billion user reality, there are serious implications here for the identities and well being of their current and future users. A social media site needs to feel safe if one is to connect, share, and communicate with other users, especially with those that we do not know so well. Facebook needs to do something about this problem, but I am convinced that they won’t act unless there is some heat on this issue.

So please, share this post widely. I want Facebook to acknowledge this problem. But more so, I want this issue to get to someone at Facebook that can help address this problem through the revamp of their reporting service and through a number of possible mechanisms to detect the scammers before they can hurt people. I’ve got ideas on how this can be done, but I need to be connected to someone who can address these changes.

If you want to know more about these romance scams, I’ve written several other posts and created several Youtube screencasts. See below. And, thanks for any help you can provide.

The Real Alec Couros

(Digital) Identity in a World that No Longer Forgets

[This post was written jointly with Katia Hildebrandt and also appears on her blog.]

In recent weeks, the topic of digital identity has been at the forefront of our minds. With election campaigns running in both Canada and the United States, we see candidate after candidate’s social media presence being picked apart, with past transgressions dragged into the spotlight for the purposes of public judgement and shaming. The rise of cybervigilantism has led to a rebirth of mob justice: what began with individual situations like the shaming of Justine Sacco has snowballed into entire sites intended to publicize bad online behaviour with the aim of getting people fired. Meanwhile, as the school year kicks into high gear, we are seeing evidence of the growing focus on digital identity among young people, including requests for our interning pre-service teachers to teach lessons about digital citizenship.

All this focus on digital identity raises big questions around the societal expectations about digital identity (i.e. that it’s sanitized and mistake-free) and the strategies that are typically used to meet those expectations. When talking to young people about digital identity, a typical approach is to discuss the importance of deleting negative artefacts and replacing them with a trail of positive artefacts that will outweigh these seemingly inevitable liabilities. Thus, digital identity has, in effect, become about gaming search results by flooding the Internet with the desired, palatable “self” so that this performance of identity overtakes all of the others.

But our current strategies for dealing with the idea of digital identity are far from ideal. From a purely practical perspective, it is basically impossible to erase all “negatives” from a digital footprint: the Internet has the memory of an elephant, in a sense, with cached pages, offline archives, and non-compliant international service providers. What’s more, anyone with Internet access can contribute (positively or negatively) to the story that is told about someone online (and while Europe has successfully lobbied Google for the “right to be forgotten” and to have certain results hidden in search, that system only scratches the surface of the larger problem and initiates other troubling matters). In most instances, our digital footprints remain in the control of our greater society, and particularly large corporations, to be (re)interpreted, (re)appropriated, and potentially misused by any personal or public interest.

And beyond the practical, there are ethical and philosophical concerns as well. For one thing, if we feel the need to perform a “perfect” identity, we risk silencing non-dominant ideas. A pre-service teacher might be hesitant to discuss “touchy” subjects like racism online, fearing future repercussions from principals or parents. A depressed teenager might fear that discussing her mental health will make her seem weak or “crazy” to potential friends or teachers or employers and thus not get the support she needs. If we become mired in the collapsed context of the Internet and worry that our every digital act might someday be scrutinized by someone, somewhere, the scope of what we can “safely” discuss online is incredibly narrow and limited to the mainstream and inoffensive.

And this view of digital identity also has implications for who is able to say what online. If mistakes are potentially so costly, we must consider who has the power and privilege to take the risk of speaking out against the status quo, and how this might contribute to the further marginalization and silencing of non-dominant groups.

In a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness

Our current strategy for dealing with digital identity isn’t working. And while we might in the future have new laws addressing some of these digital complexities (for instance, new laws are currently being proposed around issues of digital legacy) such solutions will never be perfect, and legislative changes are slow. Perhaps, instead, we might accept that the Internet has changed our world in fundamental ways and recognize that our societal mindset around digital missteps must be adjusted in light of this new reality: perhaps, in a world where forgetting is no longer possible, we might instead work towards greater empathy and forgiveness, emphasizing the need for informed judgment rather than snap decisions.

So what might that look like? The transition to a more forgiving (digital) world will no doubt be a slow one, but one important step is making an effort to critically examine digital artefacts before rendering judgment. Below, we list some key points to consider when evaluating problematic posts or other content.

Context/audience matters: We often use the “Grandma rule” as a test for appropriateness, but given the collapsed context of the online world, it may not be possible to participate fully in digital spaces if we adhere to this test. We should ask: What is the (digital) context and intended audience for which the artefact has been shared? For instance, was it originally posted on a work-related platform? Dating site? Forum? News article? Social network? Was the communication appropriate for the platform in which it was originally posted?

Intent matters: We should be cognizant of the replicability of digital artefacts, but we should also be sure to consider intent. We should ask: Was the artefact originally shared privately or anonymously? Was the artefact intended for sharing in the first place? How did the artefact come to be shared widely? Was the artefact made public through illegal or unethical means?

History matters: In face to face settings we typically don’t unfriend somebody based on one off-colour remark; rather we judge character based on a lifetime of interactions. We should apply the same rules when assessing a digital footprint: Does the artefact appear to be a one time thing, or is it part of a longer pattern of problematic content/behaviour? Has there been a sincere apology, and is there evidence that the person has learned from the incident? How would we react to the incident in person? Would we forever shame the person or would we resolve the matter through dialogue?

Authorship matters: Generations of children and teenagers have had the luxury of having their childhoods captured only by the occasional photograph, and legal systems are generally set up to expunge most juvenile records. Even this Teenage Bill of Rights from 1945 includes the “right to make mistakes” and the “right to let childhood be forgotten.” We should ask: When was the artefact posted? Are we digging up posts that were made by a child or teenager, or is this a recent event? What level of maturity and professionalism should we have expected from the author at the time of posting?

Empathy matters: Finally, we should remember to exercise empathy and understanding when dealing with digital missteps. We should ask: Does our reaction to the artefact pass the hypocrite test? Have we made similar or equally serious mistakes ourselves but been lucky enough to have them vanish into the (offline) ether? How would we wish our sons, daughters, relatives, or friends to be treated if they made the same mistake? Are the potential consequences of our (collective) reaction reasonable given the size and scope of the incident?

This type of critical examination of online artefacts, taking into consideration intent, context, and circumstance, should certainly be taught and practiced in schools, but it should also be a foundational element of active, critical citizenship as we choose candidates, hire employees, and enter into relationships. As digital worlds signal an end to forgetting, we must decide as a society how we will grapple with digital identities that are formed throughout the lifelong process of maturation and becoming. If we can no longer simply “forgive and forget,” how might we collectively develop a greater sense of digital empathy and understanding?

So what do you think? What key questions might you add to our list? What challenges and opportunities might this emerging framework provide for digital citizenship in schools and in our greater society? We’d love to hear your thoughts.