Warning: Sophisticated New ‘Hybrid’ Internet Scams Leverage Old Social Media Friendships

man using computer
A man using a laptop. Image via Pixabay

It’s the season when some extra cash comes in handy. Then imagine getting the news that you won money from www.bezosearthfund.org.

You’re entitled to some money made by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos – or so you think.

A quick check of the internet, and you know this land box is sure to be the real deal. And it must be the real deal because news of your incredible luck comes from an old friend you haven’t been in touch with in quite some time. He says you’re on a list he saw for a good chunk of Bezos’ money, no strings attached.

But there is no way to confirm anything about the specific endowment claim. Amazingly, that same week another old friend tells you about other possibilities for receiving a six-figure sum. This time news of the newfound money comes from a division chief at the USDA.

These types of online offers are part of a perfect storm for fraud according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s representative on the Computer and High-Tech Crime Task Force, known as CATCH. And the Federal Trade Commission says it’s on the rise.

Besides the lure of money, there are emotional attractions at play. For example, they make you think you’re reconnecting with your old friends over the holidays, said Ryan Carcini of the District Attorney’s Office.

“When an old friend reaches out to you, you come back,” he said, “It’s an inherent instinct if you see a familiar face or a name to which you respond.”

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Social media scams are the most common type of fraud, comprising one in four cases since 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Reported losses jumped during the height of the pandemic, decreased briefly, and now have increased 18-fold since 2017.

I reached out to Karkenny recently after receiving bizarre Bezos/USDA bids and other similar “surprises” from a number of friends with whom I have not communicated in some time or communicate only sporadically.

One friend is the former governor of Oklahoma and another is a journalist who now writes a personal blog. My friend the governor passed away six years ago, and the ‘new friend’ an actor was also dead. All the greetings started with a simple “Hi” and I got to know several “friends” names as well as someone who just “friended me”.

Stacy Wood, a fraud psychologist and professor at Scripps College, runs a research lab and also works with law enforcement and adult protective services.

“This is interesting,” she said of the social media I received. “I haven’t seen that. But I’ve seen something similar. I call them ‘hybrids.'”

And so I continued my conversations with people alive, dead, but all alive on Facebook Messenger. It all leads to individual Facebook Pages, where the main Facebook picture matches the Messenger picture.

There are not many details in the Facebook accounts. It varies from page to page. One page has many other people I know listed as friends. Karkenny advised me to never click on links Messenger posts were suggesting, warning that “there’s a lot of bad things that can come from clicking on an unfamiliar link without really knowing where you’re going.”

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What I did was I had a conversation on Messenger with the different people who contacted me.

And playing dumb, I dropped questions I knew how my real-life friends would respond. Like the former governor who played basketball into his late 70s and was a forward on a number of senior national teams. I asked on Messenger if he was still into baseball, and he replied, “Yes.” But I knew the governor’s love was basketball.

Journalist Cecil Scaglione, who was one of my Facebook friends who called with news of my earnings, is now the mature life features editor. He said, “I didn’t know I had a Facebook page because I don’t use it. I get constant alerts that I have to climb on board.”

I’ve been stuck along the faux Scaglione, starting in mid-September, wanting to see what he/she/them has been up to. The result: This was followed by a series of communications over four weeks, intended to be personal and build trust.

Here’s part of this Messenger conversation thread:

“I have streptococcus, but it’s getting better.”
Trying to put your head above the water.
“God bless you and your loved ones”
“I’m curious if I heard about the win you just received.”
“It is a USDA Global Green Scholarship.”
“I got $100,000.”
“Do you know how?”

The scammer provided a link to a USDA reward with a photo of a former department head. Other messages were on the same line, with a link supposedly leading you to the promised money.

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In the end, the presentation came from the former governor telling me where “my name appeared on the list” for the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund Program for 2022.

“I just got a $90,000 check from them,” the scammer wrote. “No qualifications are needed and it is not a loan.”

Experts advise that it is important to report suspected fraud. While it’s unlikely that reporting any action on individual cases will result, law enforcement officials say it’s worth the effort. Take the time to report anything you come across, Karkini said, because you never know what your complaint might reveal to online whistleblowers tracking this type of fraud.

The FTC reports that people between the ages of 18 and 39 are twice as likely as older adults to report these scams, although for seniors the losses are much higher per victim.

Efforts are underway to get a comment and have Facebook remove both the fake pages and messages. This information will also be sent to the FBI at https://www.ic3.gov/.

Meanwhile, conversations with some of my “friends” on Messenger continue.

JW August is a broadcast journalist and digital journalist based in San Diego.

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