Facebook’s Flaws Let Fake-Love Scammers Bilk Thousands of Victims
Advocates say the social media giant should halt the spread of ripped-off military photo IDs to target unsuspecting women
With so many people looking to Facebook, Instagram and other social media to find the love of their life, scammers are finding a growing and lucrative source of plunder.
They are taking full advantage of easily available profile photos and information from innocent users to attack their prey through romance scams, adoption scams, grandparent scams, and more, and reap ill-gotten financial rewards.
Last week, federal authorities unsealed the indictment of more than 80 suspects involved in romance scams and other forms of online fraud, who had collected at least $6 million from unsuspecting victims.
In one example, cited by CNN, a man claiming to be U.S. Army Capt. Terry Garcia stationed in Syria reached out to a Japanese woman on an international pen-pal site.
According to the court documents, their relationship soon became a full-fledged online romance. As the romance blossomed, the woman was asked for money — lots of it for a variety of urgent crises. She eventually sent Garcia over $200,000 that she borrowed from friends and other relatives.
But Garcia did not exist — he was just a digital front for a scam run by two Nigerian men, not in Nigeria but sitting in the Los Angeles area, with international assistance from folks in Nigeria and other countries. Overall, 17 people have been arrested in the United States and others are being sought internationally.
U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna told CNN, “We believe this is one of the largest cases in U.S. history,” but by many accounts, it is just a drop in the bucket.
One of the major reasons the scams are spreading so rapidly is that social media sites — especially Facebook and Instagram (which is also owned by Facebook) — provide ready tools for scammers but thus far have been reluctant to assert proper control over the growing problem.
As Jack Nicas writes in a New York Times investigation: “5 Things to Know About Military Romance Scams on Facebook”:
“Internet scammers arrived with the dial-up modem years ago, conning people in chat rooms and email inboxes. Now Facebook and Instagram provide fraudsters with greater reach and resources, enabling them to more convincingly impersonate others and more precisely target victims.”
One retired Army colonel interviewed recently by ABC News said his likeness has been stolen thousands of times and used to lure women into giving away huge sums of money. In this case, it’s not only the women who are being victimized, but the Army veteran — Bryan Denny — whose identity has been stolen and spread thousands of times throughout social media by scammers seeking more victims.
Denny told ABC that he first became aware that his identity had been stolen when he got a message from someone on LinkedIn saying, “I’ve been talking with someone who says they’re you,” and soon learned that his photos were being used to lure women from all over the world into thinking they were in a relationship with him. Denny said:
“Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Plenty of Fish… Tinder, Loving Singles, and Truly Chinese just to name a few… There have been over 3,000 false accounts just on Facebook alone.”
For two years, Denny has been fighting a largely losing battle to get Facebook to do more to stop the proliferation of the scam profiles. But it keeps on going and his real social media accounts have been inundated by pleas from victims. He added:
“You end up… breaking up with someone every week. And I say ‘breaking up with them’ because they’ve not only committed emotionally, they’ve committed financially… it really becomes overwhelming… just being the bearer of bad news to people all the time for folks.”
The problem has gotten so bad that there are now groups on Facebook itself created by corrupt members of Facebook’s own user base, that teach people how to create fake profiles, lure victims (including by using scripts) and launder their money.
As Nicas from the NYTimes, puts it:
“Scammers steal photos from service members’ Facebook and Instagram profiles and use them to create impostor accounts. To find victims, they search Facebook groups for targets — often single women and widows — and then message hundreds, hoping to hook a few. Once they have their potential mark, the scammers shift the conversations to Google Hangouts or WhatsApp, messaging services owned by Google and Facebook, in case Facebook deletes their accounts.”
In order to counter the growing scams, Denny partnered with Kathy Waters and started a group, Advocating Against Romance Scams, to try to force Facebook to act. Waters first contacted Denny after learning that a friend of hers had been bilked out of $35,000 through a fake profile using his picture and background.
The group submitted a lengthy report about Facebook’s flaws and has met with Facebook officials on a number of occasions. “Quite frankly, no change is going to happen without Facebook’s cooperation and buy-in,” Denny said. But he added: “They don’t want the responsibility of determining what’s a crime and what’s normal social communication.”
In other words, as Advocating Against Romance Scam points out, they are hiding once again behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, claiming they are immune from responsibility. That, however, doesn’t translate to they are immunity from acting, as much as Facebook wants to think so.
The issue has also attracted the attention of a member of Congress, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, who has had his own photo used by military romance scammers to defraud victims. These included one woman from India who used her life savings to try to meet him at a bus station in Rockville, Ill.
Kinzinger said he is exploring legislation that would require Facebook to do a better job of curbing the online fraud. “There needs to be accountability for this issue that can quite frankly destroy lives,” he wrote in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO.
“Facebook has an immensely significant role to play in getting this situation under control.” — Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill
Both Facebook and Instagram can take action, but they simply choose not to. Technology allowing a company to fingerprint images of individuals and tie them to a specific profile — in this case, the real veteran of the armed forces — has existed for over 20 years.
Facebook and Instagram can also deep dive into accounts once they identify those trying to create a fake profile in one setting and see who else they are targeting. This way they can protect multiple victims.
These sites can also cross-reference various IP addresses identified in scams such as these and see if there are correlations among multiple accounts that have not yet been flagged and review them to see if they are actively targeting other victims. These are just a few things that can be done.
Don’t let scammers get in the way of love, Facebook and Instagram, you can help stop the destruction of innocent lives. Just set your moral compass in the right direction, and act.