Last September, I wrote a post about how scammers had been using my photos to lure women into online, romantic relationships for the purpose of ‘borrowing’ or extorting money. Since that time, the scams have continued. I get, on average, one new report a day from women (and occasionally men) who have been tricked, or nearly tricked, into sending money. In many cases, individuals have reported forming deep attachments or even falling in love with these scammers. This has been a frustrating predicament that has been going on for many years now. In this post, I thought I would share a few of the things that I’ve learned about the scams, the scammers, and their potential victims. Here we go.
- These scams are likely not perpetrated by a single individual. In fact, they are most likely perpetrated by groups of individuals, or even gangs, most likely situated in Nigeria or Ghana. These are typically known as “romance scams“, and I feel strongly that recognizing and understanding these types of scams are essential skills for digitally literate individuals.
- These scams take place over a number of popular social networking and communication tools. While I’ve taken down nearly 50 fake Facebook profiles, I’ve also had my photos appear in profiles set up on dating sites such as eHarmony, Christian Mingle, Match.com, and Plenty Of Fish. There are also dozens of Skype accounts that have been created using my photos. The ones that concern me the most are those that actually use my name and photos. For instance, if you search ‘alec couros’ on Skype, you will get five accounts under my name. Only one of them is mine (‘aleccouros’ is legit, btw), and three have photos of me. It worries me that my friends or professional contacts may connect to one of the fraudulent accounts.
- These fake accounts are often deliberately difficult to detect because the scammers have blocked you from them. For instance, today I let Dean Shareski know that there were several Facebook accounts set up with his photos and name. When I sent him the URL of the Facebook search, he couldn’t see any of them. So, I screen captured what I saw, and sent it to him. That was the first he knew of these particular profiles. So, to better detect these scammer accounts, I would advise that you ask others to actively search for you, or alternately, search your own name on social networks like Facebook when you are logged out. Just know that the latter method may be limited depending on the accounts’ privacy settings.
- Detection of these scams requires critical thought, a healthy skepticism, and active digital literacy. I speak frequently about the power of social networks in learning, and I think that a big part of being a digital resident is trusting people that you may not know entirely well. It’s OK to talk to strangers. In fact, it’s integral to the health of a knowledge society. However, we need to increasingly carry in our minds that bit of doubt that the people we meet online (or anywhere, I suppose), may not be the people they appear to be, even when presented with what we sense as good evidence. Case in point, several of the individuals who came forward mentioned that they had ‘talked to me’ on video via Skype. As they thought back to those times, in retrospect, they now believed that the scammers had remixed Youtube videos and played them over Skype so it would appear that they were chatting with me. This still blows my mind. And, on the more positive side of things, most of the victims who found me did so through reverse Google image search. If you don’t know what this is, I’ve created a short screencast describing the process. Share this with your kids, your students, your colleagues, and your friends.
- These profiles are really hard to take down. Every social networking site seems to have a different process. Some require you to send identification such as a passport or driver’s license. Others have a series of online forms and verification systems. Some sites require (paid) membership to see or report the fake profiles. This becomes very problematic and a huge waste of time. And, I should mention that Facebook’s system for reporting these fraudulent accounts is utterly insufficient, bordering on broken. When I report an account on Facebook, sometimes it is taken down instantly. Sometimes, it takes weeks. Sometimes I perform that exact same process on the exact type of account (e.g., an account with my photos and my exact name) and the results will be different; rejected sometimes, accepted others. Facebook needs to fix this. Adding an explicit ‘romance scams’ option to its reporting system would be a place to start.
Likely, what I’ve learned the most throughout this predicament is that we need better systems for identity verification. I don’t actually like proposing this because I’m a strong proponent for rights to anonymity on the web. But, there must be a way to allow for anonymity and to also build mechanisms in place for identity verification where necessary. Ideas, anyone? Maybe my life’s work is in this problem somewhere.
Now, please share this post (or the key ideas within) with your colleagues, parents, friends, children, students, etc. It might give them that important moment of pause when most necessary. Thanks for reading.