Piotr Malczyk / Alamy Stock Photo
En español | Reconnecting with an old friend on Facebook who turned her on to a government grant promising thousands of dollars led Linda Lee on a wild-goose chase that resulted in the loss of her emergency savings fund.
"If you pay $500 you get 30,000. If you pay 950, which is what I did, you get 50,000,” says Lee, 65, of San Luis Obispo, California. “This girlfriend said she got 80,000 and sent me a picture of the cash, not with her in it, of course."
The friend urgently encouraged Lee to apply to a program called the International Financial Corporation Grant. She was then assigned to agent “Richard Harrison,” and promptly received an application from the Office of the Attorney General. “Later on that night, after I knew I'd been rooked, I went back through Facebook, found her page and messaged her,” says Lee.
Turns out her friend's profile had been cloned by a scammer duplicating her name, pictures and information. When Lee went to message her friend, she saw two threads, which indicated there were two profiles. One was fake.
Scams originating on Facebook appear to be growing
Scams through Facebook's Messenger platform are being reported to AARP's fraud help line at higher rates than ever before, says Amy Nofziger, director of AARP's Fraud Victim Support Network.
The government is also seeing an increase in such behavior. In 2018, impostor scams were the most common complaint reported to the Federal Trade Commission by consumers. The agency said government impostor scams reached a record high, based on data from January through May of this year.
How to Stay Safe on Facebook
- Do not “friend” strangers.
- Do not click on unsolicited links, and report suspicious requests.
- Do not pay for anything with gift cards.
- Do not engage with any government agency or bank through Facebook.
- Avoid people or accounts directing you to a page to claim a prize.
- When talking to a new Facebook friend, call the friend offline to make sure you're communicating with your actual friend.
- Report any impostor accounts to Facebook.
- Check out the Baby Boomers’ Guide to Facebook.
- Review this video about detecting and reporting scams.
"The federal government does not offer grants or ‘free money’ to individuals to start a business or cover personal expenses,” it said in a statement. “The government does offer federal benefit programs designed to help individuals and families in need become self-sufficient or lower their expenses."
Nofziger says the scammers create fake profiles using photos of another person to develop friendships or relationships. “The one thing about the clones is that if you get a friend request from someone that you already thought was your friend, do your due diligence and find out why,” she says.
Lee communicated with her friend's fake profile throughout the time she was being victimized. “It's almost like they were sitting side by side,” she says. “One's playing me on Messenger and the other is texting me.”
Lee's first $950 loss was for a “tax clearance fee” that was to be “refunded immediately” once the money was delivered. She was warned to keep her grant news a secret until she got the money. “Don't tell anyone at the store nor a friend so as not the alert the IRS."
The currency the scammers wanted was not U.S. dollars, but iTunes gift cards. They told her that her friend had already paid with one.
Then the scammers asked her for a second fee, this time $350. That's when Lee became suspicious. The scammers said that the van that was to deliver her grant money had been stopped by IRS officers and that the $350 would pay for an IRS certificate to ensure delivery to the “lawful owner."
"This does not happen very often ma'am. I'm so sorry the UPS department does not add the IRS fee to their money because they turned it unnecessary. I know what may be going through your mind right now. But I assure you, after this payment to the IRS, your money will surely get to you,” they texted.
"I'm sorry, tapped out. No more money. You're pulling my leg,” Lee replied.
"Trust me ma'am, we can't cancel the delivery. You will be refunded,” the scammers messaged.
"No more money for you,” Lee answered. “It's a scam. You duped me. Your driver got stopped, not true. No driver. No cash at 8pm. You're not real."
In total Lee lost $1,450, all of her emergency savings, which was a lot of money for a small-business owner out of work on disability leave.
Lee got in touch with the Los Angeles FBI office, which sent her to an online fraud form. Then she called AARP.
"If I had read my AARP a little quicker I might have not fallen for it. And I should know better,” she says. “I got over it pretty quick because I knew I was scammed. I just kept my mouth shut and only told three people because I'm too embarrassed. And I know they'd be going, ‘Linda, come on, really? You're an idiot.’ “
Lee says some of the responsibility should be placed on retailers to warn people at the store of the potential costs of putting such high dollar amounts on these cards. Scammers warn their victims not to tell anyone, including cashiers, why they are buying the cards.
Gift cards are the “currency of fraud,” says Nofziger. “Anybody that asks you to pay in a gift card for any of these things is a scam."
In response to Lee's experience, a Facebook spokesperson told AARP, “We've invested heavily in strengthening our technology to keep scammers off Facebook and remove these accounts when we discover them.…We encourage people to not accept suspicious requests and to report suspicious messages to us right away so we can take action."
The platform says that it “works with law enforcement, including the FBI, to help find and prosecute the scammers who conduct these activities."
Since Lee's experience ended, she has received numerous calls and voicemails from unfamiliar numbers. “The person she sent the iTunes gift cards to, in their mind, they feel like they could victimize her again,” Nofziger says. “We do know that selling lead lists is big business in the scam world."
Adults in the U.S. age 50 and older use Facebook more than any other social media platform. The share of older Americans who use it has more than doubled since August 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.
As of June 2019, Facebook had 2.41 billion monthly active users, 5 percent of those being fake accounts, according to the social media site. Facebook says it blocks “millions of attempts to create fake accounts every day."