I love being a netpreneur. Running an online business has allowed me to explore areas I would have never considered if I had not been in this business. Then there is the other side: I come across scams and fraudulent online marketing schemes that thrive on [misplaced] trust. I am not talking about the famous “e-mail me your routing number” or “date me abroad” types. Those were perhaps at the kindergarten level in the world of sophisticated scams — maybe a training school for rookie Internet scammers.
Here, I am talking about live human viruses that may be lurking around in your social networks already. These could be individuals who have already gained your trust and are masquerading as your friends and well-wishers. From game invites to roses and funny one-liners, they adopt a wide range of strategies to gain your trust and indirectly seek your blessings to crawl their way into your friends’ networks, often at the cost of the reputation and trust you enjoy with them.
Unfortunately, these operations are so subtle and difficult to spot that even the savviest of social media users fall prey to some very damaging machinations. Worse, over 100 million people blindly allow strangers into their networks. Before getting into the basics about protecting yourself, you should become familiar with how these fake friends manage to get into your network in the first place.
One friend innocently opens the mythical “Pandora’s Box” and lets the flies loose
The operation invariably starts with a fake account (human or a bot). It is not that hard to get one. All you need is a valid e-mail address and voila you have your passport to officially eavesdrop on millions of social media conversations.
At the next level, the fake account makes a concerted effort to join groups, fan clubs, community and interest-themed pages, celebrity hangouts, large brands, and other areas where it is easy to connect with a large number of people. Furthermore, having a common interest makes it easy for these individuals to make more friends and initiate conversations without giving away their true intentions.
Once this background is setup (or simultaneously), the fake account starts connecting with individuals randomly or in a targeted fashion. Once they make a friend, they will slowly start sending friend requests to that individual’s network and make their way through a Web of people, often mimicking search engine robots in the process. It is not that hard to accept a request from a friend’s friend, right? You may be surprised but over ninety percent of individuals will accept a friend request if it comes from a friend’s friend. Social manners!
So, what do they do with all these connections?
A lot more than you know. At a very basic level, they could use their relationship with you to gather more “likes” or ask you or your friends to click on questionable websites and send traffic their way. Often, this viral traffic is sold or auctioned off for a profit — without your informed consent. If you receive “$5 for 1,000 friends” spam you know what I am talking about.
What else could they do? A lot. Even if your privacy settings are very secure, your friends will still be privy to the information you post and share. Just by evaluating your social media habits they could paint your profile, spy on you, find your address, and do so much more damage.
Some genuinely good people see the world as being a mirror image of their own personality. They share pictures of “first paychecks,” “first credit card approvals” and even children’s information. That is a lot of ammunition for unscrupulous con artists. Seriously, just zoom the check’s image and you have the routing number, account number, and so much more. Great! Shopping spree! Let’s ship the goods to another continent.
You may have come across news stories of how houses were burglarized because the homeowner posted the family status as being at “XYZ Place” (hundred miles away from home). Perfect timing. We have two hours to swipe the house squeaky clean.
How to spot a fake friend
You could use various strategies to spot a fake friend but being vigilant to your friends’ activities is perhaps the best way to gauge their intentions. Some common threads I have discovered include:
- Huge disproportion between number of friends and other activities. This morning one of my business pages received a like from someone who had two friends and nearly 1,800 likes. Tells a story? Seriously, if you want to fake it, do it the right way. I removed him immediately. Always review your potential friend’s activity to understand what he/she is into.
- Picture-perfect models. More often than not, they will use images of picture-perfect models to either hide their nationality or give you the impression that a legitimate Greek god or goddess is interested in your friendship.
- The win-your-trust strategy. If you just posted information about a personal tragedy or an emotional roller-coaster, this is the perfect timing for them to win your trust. Be wary of strangers wanting to empathize with you.
- An unreasonably large number of photo tags. We all tag pictures but if you see a super-high number of tags, be careful.
- Super-human profile. Wide range of interests, 400-pound bench pressing skills, extra-benevolent personality … chances are the fake friend will try to charm or flirt his/her way to your friendship.
- Insufficient personal activity. If you see very few personal pictures and a large number of places or things, be alert. Red flag.
Of course, all of these could be manipulated to give you the impression that the person is real, but common sense and some basic research (Google!) should help you spot the fake. Nothing wrong in being open to friendships. Just a little discretion could go a long way toward safeguarding your own safety.