Warning: Sophisticated new “Hybrid” Internet Scams are taking advantage of old social media friendships

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

“Tis the season when some extra money is needed. Imagine receiving news that you have won money from www.bezosearthfund.org.

You’re entitled to some of the money Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is giving away — or so you think.

Take a quick look around the web and you’ll learn that this Land Fund is the real deal. And it must be the real deal, because the news about your amazing luck comes from an old friend you haven’t contacted in a while. He says you’re on Bezos’ list for a big chunk of his money.

But there is no way to confirm anything about the claim of a special gift. Surprisingly, that same week, another old friend tells you about other opportunities to make six figures. This time, the news about the new money comes from the head of the department of the US Department of Agriculture.

According to a representative of the San Diego County District Attorney’s High-Tech Task Force on Computer and Technology Crimes, known as CATCH, such online arrivals are part of a perfect storm for fraud. And the Federal Trade Commission confirms that they are on the rise.

Along with the lure of money, there are also emotional implications. For example, they make you think you’re reconnecting with old friends on vacation, said Ryan Karkenny of the district attorney’s office.

“When an old friend reaches out, you reach back,” he said, “if you see a familiar face or name to respond, it’s a natural instinct.”

According to the FTC, social media fraud is the most popular type of fraud since 2021, accounting for one in four incidents. Reported losses spiked during the height of the pandemic, briefly declined, and have now increased 18-fold since 2017.

I contacted Karkenni after recently receiving these interesting Bezos/USDA offers and other similar “surprises” from a number of friends I haven’t been in touch with for a while or only occasionally.

One friend is a former governor of Oklahoma, and another is a journalist who now writes a personal blog. My friend the governor died six years ago and the “new friend” was also a dead actor. The greetings all started with a simple “Hello” and I recognized several “friends” names as well as someone who “friended me”.

Stacey Wood, an expert in the psychology of fraud and a professor at Scripps College, leads the research lab and also works with law enforcement and adult protective services.

“It’s interesting,” he said of the social media communications I received. “I have not seen it. But I have seen something similar. I call them “hybrids”.

So I followed my conversations on Facebook Messenger with people both living and dead, but all alive. It all goes back to individual Facebook pages with the main Facebook image matching the Messenger image.

Facebook accounts don’t have much detail; varies from page to page. There were several other people I had listed as friends on the same page. Karkenni advised me never to click on links offered by Messenger posts, warning that “a lot of bad things can happen when you click on an unfamiliar link without knowing where you’re going.”

What I did was to continue the Messenger dialog where various characters addressed me.

Playing dumb, I fell for questions I knew how my real-life friends would answer. As a former governor who played basketball into his late 70s and was a striker for several top national teams. I asked him on Messenger if he was still into baseball and he said yes. But I knew that the governor’s love was basketball.

One of my Facebook friends who broke the news of my win, journalist Cecil Scaglione, is now the editor of Mature Life Features. He said, “I didn’t know I had a Facebook page because I don’t use it. “I get constant warnings that I have to get on board.”

Starting in mid-September, I lingered along the fake Scaglione, wanting to see what he was up to. The result: a series of communications that were intended to be personal and build trust took place over four weeks.

This is part of a Messenger chat chain:

“I have strep, but I’m getting better”
“I’m trying to keep my head above water”
“Peace be upon you and your loved ones”
“I wonder if you’ve heard about the win I just got.”
“This is a USDA Global Green Grant.”
“I bought 100 thousand dollars”
“How did you know?”

The scammer provided a link to the USDA earnings along with a photo of the former department chair. The other messages were along the same lines, all with a link leading you to the promised funds.

Finally, the former governor told me that “my name appears on the list” for the “2022 Jeff Bezos Earth Fund program.”

“I received a $90,000 check from them,” the scammer wrote. “No qualifications are needed and it’s not a credit.”

Experts advise that it is important to report suspected fraud. While the reporting is unlikely to result in any action on individual cases, law enforcement officials say it’s worth the effort. Take the time to report anything you encounter, because you never know what your complaint might reveal to cyber sleuths on the lookout for such scams, Karkenny said.

The FTC reports that people ages 18-39 are twice as likely to report these scams as older adults, although losses for older adults are higher per victim.

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

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

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

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