How to ID a social media scam


A woman sent me an email a few years ago with an incredible offer. She was the niece of an exiled political leader, trapped in some African country with no access to her family’s vast wealth. Because her funds were inaccessible, she needed the help of someone outside the country.

That someone was me. All she needed was my bank account information to save her fortune. For my part, I was to receive 10 percent of $137 million.

Of course, all of this was too good to be true.

You’ve likely been the lucky recipient of such an offer (hopefully, like me, you declined). In recent years, thanks to good spam filters and our finely tuned skills at detecting scams, these kinds of email have been on the decline.

But this doesn’t mean the e-scammers have gone away. They simply turned to another channel to get our attention: social media.

Late last week, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office released a warning about the increase in social media scams (to read the report, go to www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov and search the news releases for “social media scams”).

Whether you’re on Facebook, Twitter, or some other platform, the lure of quizzes and opinion polls are often to good to ignore. Some of these posts lead to shortened links, which often signal a scam.

DeWine’s office has apparently fielded claims of losses from social media scams ranging from $30 to more than $3,000.

What forms do these social media scams take?

Unlike the email scams I used to receive for low-cost Viagra or knock-off Gucci handbags (not entirely sure why I was targeted for either), some social media scams play on our desires to win prizes, make quick money, and save animals.

The AG’s office mentions three particular types of scams:

1. Prizes. DeWine notes that social media users sent money after being offered a prize or grant, and received nothing in return.

2. Money flipping. According to DeWine, and similar to email scams, Instagram users received offers to flip $100 into thousands, only to lose money.

3. Pets. If you find a great Facebook deal for a puppy or parrot, it’s probably a scam. DeWine said people wired money, but never received their new pets.

Of course, many other social media scams exist. For example, catfishing is the creation of an elaborate online personality, often under the guise of a romantic relationship, by a person who will suddenly ask for something (usually money). Other scammers offer “too good to be true” types of deals on things such as tickets, cars and vacation properties where you send money and never get the goods.

Be safe. Never send account information or money directly to a stranger. For most legitimate business transactions, there are reputable brokers who will facilitate the deal and protect you from fraud.

Do your research. Just like the report issued by the attorney general, the FBI also regularly alerts the public of e-scams.

Social media gives us lots of opportunities to create community and form rewarding connections. But just like our offline life, it’s important to balance those rewards with the potential risks.

Adam C. Earnheardt is chairman and associate professor in the department of communication at Youngstown State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.

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