Don’t be scammed by Facebook ‘Friend Requests’

Don’t be scammed by Facebook ‘Friend Requests’

Are those Facebook friend requests flowing in from around the world? Do you wonder why?

Don’t be flattered. Criminals that want to get their hands on your money or your personal identification details love Facebook, other social media and the world wide web.

If you receive a Facebook friend request from someone you’ve never personally met, don’t accept it. The simplest way to avoid falling prey to a Facebook scam is to simply delete these requests.

Here is what you need to know to enjoy Facebook as a social media platform for your real friends, and stay safe.

Number of Australians being scammed is growing

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians had the equivalent of $3 billion stolen from them because of getting caught in a scam or personal fraud attack. And this statistic is four years old (as of 23 Feb 2018). In the meantime, reports of scams and fraud schemes continue to grow. As we increasingly move our lives online, we also extend the hunting grounds for fraudsters and scammers.

Your public Facebook profile photo can be the target criminals are searching for

I have always been vigilant about my online security. I’ve always locked down my Facebook account to friends. I don’t share identifying information such as my date of birth. My husband and children refuse to have their photos shared on social media which means photos of people rarely feature on my Facebook posts, unless friends tag me. Even then, I have a setting that enables me to view the tag before I add to my Timeline.

For years, my Facebook profile photo has oscillated between home grown produce, flowers or our gorgeous Golden Retriever.

I do occasionally comment on popular media Facebook posts, and my profile image of our photogenic pet is what would be displayed publicly via these comments.

In more than a decade of being a regular Facebook user, I have never once received a ‘Friend Request’ from anyone other than people I actually know, or friends of friends.

Until a couple of weeks ago ...

I had a rare post-hairdresser-appointment-moment where I decided to change my Facebook profile to an actual photo of me. 

Then it happened.

‘Friend Requests’ started popping up daily from people around the globe. When I clicked on the first batch of profile photos, every single one was of middle aged men. I immediately deleted every request that came in. And over a two week period the requests have finally stopped. Here’s why.

Facebook fraudsters prey on vulnerable people through ‘Friend Requests’

Don’t take being a target of a fraudster personally. Criminals that use social media to try and steal from you, aren’t looking for your friendship or even a fling. Their motivations are set on getting enough information from you to take your money, steal your identity or get their hands on other benefits.

Cyber criminals use technology such as automated software or apps that can perform all sorts of scans to identify their targets. My Facebook profile photo would have been picked up by software that crawls across Facebook and scans for skin coloured pixels in the photo and any other identifiers that meet defined criteria. In my case, the criminal's target criteria was likely to be as simple as a middle aged woman; in one of the wealthier countries of the world, Australia. Target set.

The ‘Friend Requests’ I was receiving were likely to have been automated by malicious software too – and most likely coming from one scammer.

Here’s what could have happened had I accepted even one of those ‘Friend Requests’:

  • The person behind the scam will have started trying to chat to me – most likely via Messenger to make it feel very personal – and start exploring how vulnerable a target they’d found.
  • The messages may then have developed into a Facebook relationship where the criminal slowly extracts more and more personal identification information from me as they build their weapon.  They may be wanting to use my personal identification to sell to another criminal, or to hit me with a whole heap of debt as they take out loans and credit cards in my name.
  • As ‘trust’ builds and the online relationship starts becoming more serious, the criminal might ask to borrow some money to fly over to see me; or explore if I wanted to partner with them on a great investment opportunity; or share with me their devastating plight and their desperate need for me to transfer some funds to their bank account; or,
  • They could tell me about some great investment opportunity they’ve discovered, and all  I need to do is provide a whole heap of personal or business information to a website link... I think you can guess where it could go from there. Here’s an example from CBS News – Facebook scams when your friends are actually hackers.

This type of scam is sometimes referred to as ‘catfishing’ - create a fake social media profile, crawl the social media network for vulnerable users - often using automated software, earn their trust and steal their identity, ask for money or send them to an illegitimate website to steal their information or money. The possibilities once a scammer has your trust are endless.

Never accept a ‘Friend Request’ on Facebook from someone you don’t know.

How to check if you’ve been targeted for a Facebook Friend Request scam

Here are some simple steps to take if you’re not sure about accepting a Friend Request on Facebook.

  1. Do you know the person? If you don’t know them, delete the request.
  2. Perform a reverse image search on their profile photo. Open up their Facebook profile. Click on their image, and choose ‘Save image as’. Now perform a ‘reverse image lookup’ to check where that image appears online. When I did this – every profile image I checked had multiple names across the world wide web. This is an easy indicator to alert you to fraud. The person in the image is unlikely to be the fraudster, but their image is being used by the criminal. Tin Eye Reverse Image Search is one of the more popularly used apps to check the legitimacy of images. 
  3. Take control of the situation. If the person that has sent you the Friend Request seems familiar, but you’re not sure (for example they may be a school friend from 40 years ago), take control of the situation. Don’t accept their Friend Request without investigating further. Go to their Facebook Profile to message them directly, and ask them how you know each other. If you’re still in doubt, simply delete the request.

The same rules apply across all situations, online platforms, email, text messages and even in your mailbox. If you’re not sure, don’t open the door! Stay safe.

And the reason why my 'Friend Requests' have dwindled back to nothing is because my fraudster has worked out that I am a tougher target than they bargained for!

For more information on keeping yourself safe online, visit the Australian Government’s Stay Smart Online for information on the latest scams, and tips to help.

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