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'National Geographic' Photographer Paul Nicklen Warns About Social Media Impostors

Scammers create fake online accounts targeting the followers of famous figures

spinner image Scammers impersonate famous people like National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen on social media.
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National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen is renowned for incredible, one-of-a kind images of polar bears, leopard seals, narwhals and other unique species in some of the world’s coldest, most menacing climates. Sharing these intimate portraits and his experiences in places few will ever visit has gained him a large, devoted following on social media. Unfortunately, scammers have also taken notice and are operating hundreds of impostor accounts targeting his followers. Meanwhile, a veteran and his wife fight to reclaim his highjacked Facebook account from scammers. 

spinner image Infographic quote that reads: They said, "Just so you know, our Mum has left our Dad to pursue a life with you, the fake you." I mean I was sick, I couldn't believe it.
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Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:02] Male: Hi there, a few weeks ago I had applied for a job online and received an email saying that this was Paul Nicklen and he would like me to work for him.

[00:00:12] Female: Dear Paul -- I follow you online and love the work you do...I am writing out of concern..I received a direct message today from Paul Nicklen 221 and 49...Are these you?

[00:00:24] Male(impostor): Hello, I'm Paul Nicklen. Thank you for your comment on my official page. I will love to know what you think of my career.

[00:00:31] Paul Nicklen: These kids called my office and they said, "Just so you know, our mother has left our dad. They wired the fake, 'You owe the money.' We know it's not you, but she's in love with the scam version of you, and she's waiting for you in a city to go on this, this, you know, this journey of this love affair with you." And that's when it just ripped my heart out. I mean we're talking to the tune of almost $100,000 that was sent, like life savings. And that, that just, that just was a punch in the gut.

(MUSIC INTRO)

[00:01:03] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. Paul Nicklen is a world-famous wildlife photographer. He's won pretty much every major award shooting polar bears, leopard seals, and other rare animals in some of the world's coldest, most menacing climates for National Geographic. Naturally, he has a massive following on social media, particularly on Instagram where you can see his incredible, intimate portraits of penguins, narwhals, seals, and bears in their natural habitats. He's live an amazing life, but he's also living a kind of double life; the internet is teeming with impostors of Paul Nicklen operating hundreds of scams in his name. And he's pretty sick of it.

 [00:01:53] Paul Nicklen: It went from one email a month to now getting messages from people on either Facebook or Instagram to now getting probably an up--, a bad day would be 10, 10 a day where people write me and just say, "We know, I'm just verifying. Is this you or if it isn't? We don't think it's you, but here's the note saying, you know, thank you for being my loyal number one fan," these ridiculous notes. So sometimes it's as bad as 10 a day. So imagine 50, 60, 70 DMs a week going to people, at any one time there's 20 fake me's out there trying to reach people. It makes me feel terrible, obviously, but why are these companies that are drowning in billions and billions of dollars, the biggest, best tech companies in the world with the biggest and brightest minds, not able to tackle something so simple?

[00:02:38] Bob: Something so simple as what's sometimes called the celebrity impostor scam. Criminals steal photos from accounts belonging to famous people, set up look alike accounts, connect with their fans, and then engage them in private conversations with the ultimate goal of stealing their money. It's a big problem, and it's only getting bigger, and there are victims in all directions, people who are manipulated into sending money to these impostors are certainly victims, but so are people like Paul who is busy trying to fight off angry predators like elephant seals. He doesn't have time to report dozens of fake accounts every day. He could spend nearly all his time doing that. And, well to be sure, right before I talked to him, I went onto Instagram and basically found a limitless supply of would-be Paul Nicklen accounts using his photography without his permission, many set up with the idea of stealing from Paul's fans. Now before we get into what's really going on here, let's take a moment to understand Paul's work, why he has a special, intimate connection with the people who follow him on social media and why that's, well, that's part of the scam. Here's Paul speaking during a Ted Talk a few years ago.

[00:03:58] Paul Nicklen (Ted Talk): My journey to become a polar specialist, photographing, specializing in the polar regions began when I was four years old when my family moved from southern Canada to northern Baffin Island, up by Greenland. There we lived with the Inuit in the tiny Inuit community of 200 Inuit people, we're one of three non-Inuit families. And in this community, we didn't have a television, we didn't have computers, obviously, uh radio. We didn't even have a telephone. All of my time was spent outside with the Inuit playing. The snow and the ice were my sandbox and the Inuit were my teachers. And that's where I became truly obsessed with this polar realm, and I knew someday that I was going to do something that had to do with trying to share news about it and protect it.

[00:04:45] Bob: And so he did, initially, as a biologist and then ultimately, as a photographer. Many time he's been the first person to photograph these rare animals in their homes. It's not easy. On one story he was sent to photograph a white bear, one of only about 200 left in the world. He stayed onsite for weeks, month, without catching a glimpse of this rare animal until...

[00:05:14] Paul Nicklen (Ted Talk continues): After two months of sitting there, one day thinking that it was all over, this incredible, big white male came down right beside me. Three feet away from me. And he went down and grabbed a fish and went off in the forest and ate it, and then I, I spent the entire day living my childhood dream of walking around with this bear through the forest. He went through this, this old grove forest and sat out beside this, you know, 400-year-old culturally modified tree and went to sleep, and I actually got to sleep from, within three feet of him and this is in the forest and photographed him.

[00:05:42] Bob: Paul says he was worried he wasn't doing enough for the region just by studying it as a scientist, so he began photographing it so people could see these amazing creatures living their lives in their own environments and through the images he makes, he hopes people can't help but care more about these animals and their homes.

[00:06:03] Bob: And you want to make people fall in love with the planet so that they care more about the planet, right?

[00:06:09] Paul Nicklen: Yeah, 100%, that's well said. Yeah, I mean if, if they're not going to take action and, and on anything that they don't understand, and, and they're not going to understand what they don't really see, and really, you're right, there's so much noise in our world right now. They need to fall in love, and that's my job is to transport people through the screen or through a page and get, grab them by the heart and make them fall in love with the creatures, the ecosystems, the habitats that I'm so in love with. And I know that they are so vulnerable and fragile right now.

[00:06:38] Bob: Paul's life sounds like a fairy tale, like every animal lover's dream. But Paul's office is icy cold water, weighed down by heavy scuba equipment and really heavy underwater camera equipment, and getting as close as he can to animals that, in his words, often are in a very bad mood. He's had several near-death experiences, but he has also dispelled some myths about creatures that humans shouldn't really be afraid of. He won a Picture of the Year Award for a story he did on supposedly dangerous leopard seals in Antarctica. Let's be clear, the seals are dangerous to penguins which they feed on, but after an initial getting to know you encounter, one seal Paul met actually tried to feed him a penguin several times. Don't worry, he didn't eat it. But if you look at the pictures Paul took of these creatures, you'll never forget them. An adult leopard seal is about 800 pounds, that's almost as heavy as a concert grand piano, and they react to strangers by opening their mouths as wide as possible to bare their alligator-like teeth; an opening plenty wide to devour a man the size of Paul. And so wide it fills up the frame of Paul's camera in one picture he made while a female lunged at it. It feels like the camera is about to get swallowed Jonah and the whale style. And well, this is a podcast, so I have to try to describe these pictures to you with words but that's doing them a bit of an injustice. You just have to go see them.

[00:08:19] Paul Nicklen: Well, you know, I, being Canadian I would not say I've done anything that's remarkable, but I would say maybe what I have, what I'm really, you know the funny, it's the one skill that I have that I think puts me above all my peers in the industry is that I'm really good at being frozen and miserable and cold. You know having grown up in the Arctic with the Inuit, having lived that life in extreme polar conditions, you know that's where my work is. I prefer to come back with my most unique body of work, either in Antarctica or the Arctic and you know, swimming with leopard seals and swimming with polar bears and narwhals, and all those animals that most people will never see. So that's, that's kind of what I'm, I'm proud of is that I'm really good at, at pushing my own body to the point of hypothermia and you know pain and, and coming back. And when you're in those situations and you're really suffering, not only do you have to just survive, but you have to not only just take a picture, but you have to shoot pictures that are the caliber of National Geographic, or with our nonprofit SeaLegacy. We really want people to fall in love with our planet, to care about our changing world, especially in the polar regions. So my work has to be intimate. It has to be very close and personal and create a visceral reaction, so I think that's what I'm most proud of is that I'm very good at patience, passion, and purpose, that I'll put in the time to, you know, have animals ultimately dictate the encounter which will allow us to have a real intimate moment. Sometimes after weeks, days, weeks, months, or sometimes years waiting, if I had two good days of shooting out of 5 years of trying with narwhals and you know those images I don't think will, will ever be duplicated, but it's just because I had you know the, the survival skills to go along with the patience, to go along with, you know, the ability to, to suffer to, to get those images. So I, I feel lucky to do what I do.

[00:10:05] Bob: So there's no arguing that Paul is a man with a lot of patience, enough patience to wait literally years to get a winning photo of a narwhal. But here at The Perfect Scam, we're going to share what has happened to Paul that has made him run out of patience. He's Paul talking to fans on an Instagram reel video.

[00:10:28] Paul Nicklen (Instagram video): Hey everybody. I am sorry for all the confusion with people writing you directly asking you for money, trying to connect with you from all of my fake accounts. These are scams. Please report everybody who writes you. If anybody asks you for money or asks you for anything, just report them. Uh, these are fake accounts. We're trying to address it, working with Instagram, working with our tech team, but apparently, it's rampant, and I'm very sorry to be caught up in this mess, and I'm sorry that they are reaching out to you as well. We'll get on top of this.

[00:10:56] Bob: That was Paul making a video for his Instagram followers, warning them about his many impostors back in 2017, six years ago. And here is Paul reading to me a post he made just a few days ago on Instagram that accompanied a picture he posted which appeared to show him lying in a hospital bed with a broken leg.

[00:11:20] Paul Nicklen: (reading post) "This is fake. This is a scam that is being used to exploit innocent people. I am healthy and well. I'm so saddened by the number of scammers who engage and steal from vulnerable and good people; people who are kind, trusting, loyal, supportive, and often elderly. I don't know how many times I need to say this. But I will never write you on Instagram or Facebook and ask you for money or ask you to sing my praises or to engage with me in a long and romantic cyber conversation. Currently I'm receiving 5 to 10 emails a day from people asking if I wrote them romantic DMs. For those who follow my work, please know that I will never write you personally. There is only one @PaulNicklen and any other variation of that name is a scam. For those who have been hurt by the scammers, I am truly sorry. These people are cowards, and they are predators, and I wish that they could all be held accountable. There is enough sadness, sickness, and devastation in the world right now that we don't have time for these distractions. #sorry."

[00:12:25] Bob: Six years of this. After all the dangerous situations Paul has put himself into, and gotten himself out of, through the years 800-pound animals are nothing compared to the threat of cyberspace. This is one battle he just can't seem to win.

[00:12:45] Paul Nicklen: I've never had a problem out in the wild. I've seen 3,000 polar bears. I've never had a problem, you know, it's, animals are consistent and safe generally, but this world of, of tech is, is something that's so, you know I've always said I don't want to die of a strange, weird disease that I can't see, and then I don't want to, you know, fall victim to cybercrimes, and it's, it's unfortunate, but it's, it's part of the world we live in and um...

[00:13:12] Bob: You do some incredibly brave and rare things, and yet this, this enemy is one you can't seem to defeat.

[00:13:19] Paul Nicklen: Can't, can't, and it's not even that you can't defeat it, you don't even know where to begin. You know if you were being attacked by somebody you, you've got a 911 number to call, you've got your evasive maneuvers, or you know, maybe you're carrying a can of pepper spray or whatever it is, but there's nothing to do here. You don't know what to do other than write the provider who is not giving you sufficient support. And that just seems to fall nowhere. So I hope that they, they hear this podcast. I hope that you put this in front of them. I hope that, you know, we, we have to start taking it head on.

[00:13:50] Bob: Of course Paul is just one of the victims of this version in the celebrity impostor scam. On the other side are people who think they're writing directly to him, perhaps donating money to one of his causes, or to him to help him pay for medical bills so he can get back to doing the important work he does. And Paul is far from the only celebrity targeted by this crime. In fact, it's so rampant that an entire company exists just to help victims get hundreds, even thousands of lookalike accounts removed. It's called Social Impostor. And it's run by a man named Kevin Long who's been at this for more than a decade. I asked him to define the celebrity impostor scam for us.

[00:14:37] Kevin Long: Sure, so it is someone who sets up a social media account with one of the networks that claims to be someone else, whether it be a high profile entertainer, a minister, a actor, a singer, a business person, a member of a royal family; they set these accounts up with the intent of gaining followers or more importantly, contacting the legitimate followers of someone that the person they're impersonating. And they are using that account to try and scam them out of money or pictures or information that they can then use for identity theft or other, other nefarious purposes. And so and it doesn't take long to gain the trust of people. So the scammers have evolved from using an email necessarily as the primary tactic, to using social media as a way to reach out to these people that they feel might be more susceptible.

[00:15:42] Bob: And it works in part because the criminals have numbers on their side.

[00:15:48] Kevin Long: It's a game of numbers, like, like the old email scams were. You know, they may send out a million emails, but if they get 20 responses and they get, you know, 500 bucks from 20 people, it's really cost them virtually nothing, and now that they've automated these programs that generate these accounts, it's, it's really, you know, it's no, no time off of their back at all. I describe what I do kind of as a game of whack-a-mole because I go in and I, I'll take a, I'll get an account taken down but there's a new, there's a new one that pops up immediately. So when that pops up, I take it down and it's just continuous, it doesn't stop. And so it's an ongoing effort and an ongoing problem that I don't see going away anytime soon.

[00:16:37] Bob: It's not going away because the criminals are getting away with it. Time is on their side.

[00:16:45] Kevin Long: Right, it's, it's like, you know, walking into a gunfight with a you know a, a stick that you found on the ground. And uh you know you're trying to swing and swing and swing, but they're just fire--, rapid firing at you.

[00:16:58] Bob: I asked Kevin if he could describe the scale of the problem to us.

[00:17:03] Bob: How many times a day is someone like Taylor Swift the victim of an impostor account?

[00:17:09] Kevin Long: If it was Taylor Swift, there would probably be thousands a day on various networks. I mean last week for instance, I had a client that was normally in the 250-account range per week, and I had over 1000 accounts for that person last week.

[00:17:27] Bob: Wow.

[00:17:28] Kevin Long: I mean it just is, and, and I don't know why. You know, I think a lot of it depends on the activity of the client, you know, are they out in the public doing something, saying something that might be controversial?

[00:17:42] Bob: For Paul, he's been dealing with these impostors for a long time, but something happened recently which triggered him to make that exasperated Instagram post which he just read to us. A report that a victim had wired $12,000 in response to that picture circulating on social media which allegedly showed him confined to a hospital bed. I asked Paul to take a look at his post again while we spoke.

[00:18:11] Paul Nicklen: Just a, coming up slow here. Okay, here I am. God, that's a terrible picture. All right. It was uh on November 1 I was brought, this was brought to my attention that somebody had sent money to my office to support me in my recovery. And I was just horrified and shocked, and so immediately upon seeing this, I just banged this out in my phone in about 5 minutes and posted it. So it's a picture of me lying in a hospital bed, which is apparently a skier who is, who was hurt in an accident.

[00:18:41] Bob: So the woman who recently wire $12,000 to your organization, was that in response to the fake picture of you lying in the hospital bed?

[00:18:49] Paul Nicklen: I believe it was. My understanding is yes, that it was that picture that, that spurred that on. That, that I was injured and their heart was broken over it. And the scammers took advantage, obviously said that to them, and, and that resulted in, in money being sent to the scammers. And then it was brought to the attention of my office manager.

[00:19:11] Bob: Believe me, if you want to hurt a professional photojournalist, stage a fake picture, and claim they have made it.

[00:19:19] Bob: Knowing obviously how seriously you take the veracity of images, you feel so strongly about this that you posted this, this picture on your own account to say, "This is fake." That must have been a choice for you.

[00:19:31] Paul Nicklen: Oh, for sure. I mean yeah, I was, I, I do that when, you know I'm an emotional person being an artist, and I did that when I was very upset and very sad when, when good people again are being hurt and financially and emotionally, and, and um, you know the, the trust, the trust is damaged. It, it's one thing to put up my picture, to write people a DM, but now you're creating like a really poorly done photoshop of, of you know me in a hospital bed that obviously is it's a fake face stuck on somebody in a bed. But...

[00:19:59] Bob: I just want to make clear to everybody listening, that photo is fake. You're not, you did not injure, you didn't break your leg, you're not, you know, need donations to get healthy. Um...

[00:20:08] Paul Nicklen: And, and I really don't believe if I did get hurt, I would ever lean on innocent, loving supporters who uh, to help me out. I think I would just, you know, quietly go through a process of being recovered, you know recover like any injured person. I mean it's uh, yeah.

[00:20:24] Bob: And just to be clear, this incident that pushed Paul over the edge was just one of many. Here's part of a private message Paul's office received recently from a victim of a different scam.

[00:20:37] Male (message clip): A few weeks ago I had applied for a job online and received an email saying this was Paul Nicklen, and he would like me to work for him. I actually called the number he was texting me from which is in Mississippi and the man that answered had an accent and said he was Paul Nicklen, but from what I saw of Paul Nicklen on YouTube, this sounded nothing like him. Could you please let me know if I should be concerned? I did receive a check and have dispersed some of the funds, but because this is being done over email and text, just wanted to confirm that everything was in order before I go any further.

[00:21:16] Bob: Paul's office shared about a dozen such messages with us. We read some of them at the top of this episode from people who think they're working for him, or who think they're donating to him, or who even think they're in love with him.

[00:21:30] Bob: When is the first time this happened to you?

[00:21:33] Paul Nicklen: You know I don't, I spent so much time trying to block it all out because it is such a, a frustrating annoyance. Part of my, my journey, 'cause you know we're all busy and we're trying to do good work. And I'd say probably 10 years ago would be the first time that somebody brought something to the, to my attention that somebody was using my name to approach them. And then you know, then it started, the frequency just started to pick up. It went from one email a month to now getting not emails, but sorry, just messages from people on either Facebook or Instagram to now getting probably an up--, a bad day would be 10, 10 a day where people write me and just say, "We know, I'm just verifying, is this you or if it isn't, we don't think it's you but here's the notes. Thank you, you know, thank you for being my loyal number one fan," these ridiculous notes. Um, so sometimes it's as bad as 10 a day. So imagine 50, 60, 70 DMs a week going to people, at any one time there's 20 fake me's uh, out there trying to reach people.

[00:22:36] Bob: And while so much of this happens virtually through direct messages or other kinds of messages, it can spill into real life.

[00:22:45] Paul Nicklen: I just had another woman, uh about a year ago show up to one of my gallery events and was staring at me with love in her eyes, and I'm like, she finally came up to me. And she goes, "You know you know who I am. We've been corresponding." And I'm like, "I don't know who you are. I've never met you. I've never talked to you. It's a scam."

[00:23:03] Bob: But the most painful story that he's heard involved a woman who thought she loved Paul and...

[00:23:10] Paul Nicklen: It was about six years ago where these kids called my office. I didn't even take the call. It was my assistant at the time, and they said, "Just so you know, our mother has left our dad. They wired the fake; 'you owe the money.' We know it's not you, but she's in love with the scam version of you, and she's waiting for you in a city to go on this, this, you know, this journey of this love affair with you." And that's when it just ripped my heart out. I mean we're talking to the tune of almost $100,000, uh that was sent, like life savings. That just was a punch in the gut. And I just got really sad and just realized that really good people out there who care, and really people sometimes are lonely, they're vulnerable. Maybe they're not well, maybe they just are very good trusting people or whatever it is, good people are being hurt. And that's when I started to get pretty angry about this.

[00:24:02] Bob: But you heard from children who essentially suggest that this impostor broke up their family.

[00:24:06] Paul Nicklen: Yeah, exactly. From their kid.

[00:24:08] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:24:09] Paul Nicklen: And that they said, "Just so you know, my, our mum has left our dad to pursue a life with you, the fake you." And that's when I just, I just got, I felt, I mean I was sick, I couldn't believe it.

[00:24:20] Bob: Paul felt sick. That was six years ago. He's still dealing with daily reach outs, heartbreaking stories, and well, it turns out he might be the perfect target for these celebrity impostor scams, because his work is so intimate.

[00:24:41] Bob: Well, and I think this intimacy is actually a part of the story, one reason why people react emotionally to your images, would, would be a reason they might react emotionally to a plea from someone pretending to be you and asking for help or money or love. You have an intimate relationship with your, with your audience, and I think that makes them perhaps even more susceptible than some, some other audiences might be to a scam like this.

[00:25:06] Paul Nicklen: Yeah, I think that's very, very astute and that's bang on, and I did another interview on, on this very issue. And I was sort of externally processing, but I came to the same conclusion that you just stated, and I'm like, why me? Why, why are people scamming me just ruthlessly and, and at such a high frequency as well. And I think it's that you would, you would never get a text or an email from, I don't know, Chris Hemsworth saying, "Thank you for being my loyal number one fan." You know, you'd know it's a scam, you would just, you would just laugh about it. But the fact that I have such an intimate relationship with my followers, that they not just love me, but they love animals, they love nature, and so therefore I've had people come up to me in the airport or my lectures or whatever it is, just crying, crying with love, passion, fear, concern for the planet, and they feel like they're on this journey with you. It's very intimate. And so I think what happens is when I write somebody and say, "Thank you for your support," the fake me, when the scammers write somebody, let just be clear, I never write anybody. When the scammers write people and say, "Thank you for your love, your support." I mean like ridiculous things, and like, "Thank you for being my most loyal fan, my number one fan," 'cause maybe these people do view themselves as for being a number one fan just because they care so much about our planet, about the animals, about our ailing ecosystems, and I think that they feel that connection. And so maybe it, it's just not so weird or so farfetched to get an email from me or a DM versus a note from a celebrity, that you know, that's got a huge flag on it. But from me, sure, why not? Why wouldn't I write somebody and thank them for caring about the things that I care about and start that conversation?

[00:26:55] Bob: Paul is, of course, hardly the only celebrity who evokes feelings of intimacy in fans making those fans an easy target for an intimate request. That's why so many celebrities find their way to Kevin's Social Impostor company.

[00:27:11] Bob: What kind of people find you, and what mental state are they in at the time they find you?

[00:27:16] Kevin Long: Well it varies right. It, it goes from the actual celebrity themselves, or the high profile person themselves, who has had a fan get scammed in a really bad way, and so they've had negative press, so they're all concerned because something bad has happened and it's, it's taken an impact to them, or they feel bad about one of their fans being taken advantage of, to the, their social media teams that are just inundated with, they're, they're busy. They're not large teams in most cases, they're 1, 2, 3 people shops and their primary job is not to find and remove impostor accounts. It's to get content out. Generate content and, and uh post on behalf of their, their person. And so this is just like an ancillary task to their, to their normal job and they don't have time to do it in a way that can be effective and, and find and remove them. Whereas, you know my job is every day I go out and I search, I find, and I remove. That's all I do. And then you know if somebody has a problem with their account; it gets hacked or they lose access to it or you know something negative happens to their account, they'll come to me and I can use my channels to try and help them regain control of their account or get a specific user name, things like that. Those are things that I can assist with as well. But my primary focus every day is to go out and find people who are impersonating my clients and get those accounts removed.

[00:28:51] Bob: Who are his typical clients?

[00:28:54] Kevin Long: My typical clients are people who are engaging with their followers on a regular basis; they're high profile. Most of them have at least a million followers and so their, their content's getting seen regularly by their followers, and they're posting a lot themselves or their team is posting a lot. So it's a, you know just a matter of time before they fall into the uh, the eyes of the scammers, and they start being attacked. So I work with a lot of folks in the ministry, for example. And so a lot of folks who are the televangelists or the high-profile ministers at the mega churches down to smaller ministries that are reliant on their followers to be financially supportive for their organizations, you know we, even one account or one, one of their followers being scammed is a problem for them because it hurts their credibility with their followers, and more importantly it hurts the, the victim who's been scammed out of the money. And none of them want to see that happen to their followers. So kudos to them for being proactive in, in finding and removing. You know I've also worked with large charity organizations who have the same problem. They don't want to have people who are willing to donate and follow them online fall prey to someone soliciting funds in a way that they would not be giving to the organization. So for them, it's important to try and eliminate that before it happens in both of those cases. And then I also work with uh corporations and uh governments, foundations and, and places like that where there are fans that are followers that are being misled about policy or whatnot.

[00:30:50] Bob: He's also heard a lot from people who have dedicated their lives to service, who have to deal with their images, their online personas being used to steal from other people.

[00:31:02] Kevin Long: You know my experience in that has been a lot with military officers and military folks who've had issues with people creating accounts. The, the military romance scams are, and you can read about it in almost any uh veteran's magazine or, or any blog that covers military uh issues, that's a huge problem there. So I've seen it there, I've worked with a few of those. And they are exasperated because, and a lot of times they don't know until something happens and you know someone will show up at the base and say, "Well wait a minute, I gave you money to help buy body armor for your troops because you told me they didn't have it." And they're like, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

[00:31:44] Bob: Ahh... that's terrible.

[00:31:47] Kevin Long: And so that's happened. I could count the number of times that those folks have contacted me, you know, on, on several sets of hands and feet. I mean it's just, it's heartbreaking to hear because the military officers, those guys have significant responsibilities, not only for national security, but for their own troops, and now to have to be distracted by this, it's not allowing them to focus on their main mission, and, and so it, it diverts them away from what they're supposed to be doing. And I see that happen there.

[00:32:20] Bob: That has happened to a victim I interviewed recently. In fact, it's happening right now.

[00:32:27] My name is Kelly Anderson. I live in Southern California right now on Camp Pendleton.

[00:32:34] Bob: Right now sounds very temporary.

[00:32:35] Kelly Anderson: Right, you know, that's a habit from being a military wife forever, but um, it is more or less permanent. Um, my husband is retired from the Navy. We just still say right now because living on base, nothing is ever permanent. He was in the Navy for 11 years, Corpsman for 7 of those. And I am a photographer for the Disneyland Resort.

[00:33:01] Bob: And Kelly's day, well her life really, is interrupted when her husband discovers someone else has hijacked his social media persona.

[00:33:11] Kelly Anderson: Yeah, so I was on my way to work, actively in the last 10 minutes before going out the door, and my husband yells upstairs that he just got an email saying somebody was trying to access his Facebook account. And I kind of brushed it off initially because I am aware of phishing scams and I know that a lot of times, you know it is, somebody's trying to get into your account, or your account was locked or whatever. Click this link. And I know enough to know generally not to touch those. So I kind of just brushed him off initially. I was just like, just don't click any links. I'm on my way to work. And that's when he was more clear and said, "No, somebody has gotten into my Facebook account. I can't get in." And so that made me pause and I went down and I looked at the emails, the security emails that came from Facebook, and I checked on those.

[00:34:14] Bob: And that's when she realizes she has to deal with this right away.

[00:34:19] Bob: So you're dressed, have your coat on, well it's Southern California, maybe you don't have a coat on.

[00:34:24] Kelly Anderson: I have my work, my work uniform on, yes.

[00:34:27] Bob: You have your work uniform on. Your hand's on the door, and your husband says, "I have this issue with Facebook," and, and you're like, oh God, we'll deal with that later. And then you realize it's more serious. Given all that you've just said to me, weren't you late for work that day?

[00:34:42] Kelly Anderson: I was. Yeah, I was late for work that day. But given the the nature of hacking and uh the link to social media and it, even though my husband doesn't use his Facebook account to the certain extent that most people these days do, having his account already linked to mine, knowing the likelihood that if you didn't, if somebody can get into that, if an email or a password is shared with any other account, that immediately puts all of your other accounts at risk. So it was something that I, I kind of had to focus on.

[00:35:18] Bob: And so begins an hour's long wrestling match with whoever it is who has taken control of Ryan's account, and a week's long wrestling match with Facebook.

[00:35:29] Kelly Anderson: We still didn't click any links until I verified that it was still supposed to be from Facebook and at that point, we clicked the link saying, "This is not me." But at that point, it was already too late, basically. The link had expired and at that point there was nothing we could do. So we started looking at the Facebook recovery options, Facebook.com/hacked, Facebook.com/identify, trying to go through all the steps there, but they didn't go anywhere at all. So uh the Facebook.com/hacked asks for a previous email that you can use if you used that specific browser previously. And trying that, it would let us to the next screen, which then asked for a password. And at that point we got stuck because the person who had hacked in had already changed the password, and it was just a brick wall at that point. There was literally nothing else to do. And any button that we tried would just start us back at the beginning, so the only two screens we could ever access were, "use this old email" and "use an old password" which then we were told is no longer the password, and therefore, no longer valid.

[00:36:43] Bob: And the more Kelly and Ryan click, the more frantic the situation becomes.

[00:36:48] Kelly Anderson: It's incredibly stressful. It's, it is so, so very frustrating, and progressively more and more maddening. Um, I was getting ready to throw the computer out the window because there is no option to talk to a person. You cannot talk to even an AI chatbot unless you're already logged into your account, and if you're logged into an account, the AI chatbot can only help you with your own account. So it just seems so frustrating and so ridiculous that this enormous corporation has absolutely zero customer support with what I would imagine would be the number one issue that people actually need support with. It got to the point where I, I have a very specific time limit at work. If I'm more than 3 hours late, I can get written up. And so I have to call it quits at a certain point. I think I left the house about 45 minutes after my latest deadline.

[00:37:54] Bob: I'm guessing a hand slammed on a desk or something like that?

[00:37:57] Kelly Anderson: Oh yeah, there was many, many swear words, and uh lots of frustration. Lots of, lots of yelling.

[00:38:05] Bob: Ryan is not Paul Nicklen of course. He doesn't have millions of devoted followers who might be the target of a sympathy campaign launched by a fake photo of an injury, or the chance to work as his assistant, but criminal impostors have other ways to abuse Ryan.

[00:38:23] Kelly Anderson: Uh, he... I'm basically tech support for my husband. So he relies on me to do basically most of the uh tech-related things in the house. So he's primarily frustrated because it is adding one thing to my plate in my very busy day. As far as the content of his account itself, like I said, he's not one of those people that actually uses it. So he's not as emotionally invested into his account as most people are. But his concerns were security, um, being retired from the military he obviously has photos of himself in uniform, no secret information or anything, but definitely, you know, military contacts. He has family members who are more vulnerable targets, so his main concern was security and privacy, um, obviously we have pictures of our son, his younger half brother and sister, uh basically just you know it, it's that sense of violation, that feeling that somebody has invaded your personal space. And so that was more of his concern. Um, he was keeping it together but it was more out of a sense of not really knowing what to do, and then he was more upset on my behalf that it was something that it had to go through and try and figure out how to fix.

[00:39:49] Bob: Yeah, which makes sense to me, and you being the tech person, you're probably more aware that the, that this isn't just something annoying, that this could turn into something really, really bad, right?

[00:39:58] Kelly Anderson: Right.

[00:39:59] Bob: And Kelly's worst fears are realized almost right away.

[00:40:04] Kelly Anderson: So the first thing that this person started doing publicly uh was to change the profile photo to one of the pictures of my husband in uniform from about 10 years ago. And it looks like a family photo. It's a photo of him with his dad and his younger siblings back when they were little kids. So now we're more in the heightened awareness. We're going, okay, cool. They're using that, that uniform to gain some sort of reliability and likely to try and trick other people. So yeah, the fact that he's gotten photos of him in uniform, even though they're just photos from being around town, uh and they're not anything super-secret, that is an even bigger sense of violation that they are using that uniform to try and gain credibility.

[00:40:57] Bob: What can a criminal impostor do with an account where the profile picture is a family man in uniform? Remember what Kevin said about military accounts, a wide number of romance scams are begun by criminals impersonating someone in the military. Ryan's account is perfect for that. And Kelly knows that, so she sweeps into action trying to get the account back or at least get it taken down. She reports it as hacked and tells all their mutual social media friends to do the same. That seems to have no effect.

[00:41:33] Kelly Anderson: I have gotten I think one person that I can remember that said that they got a response, like an automated response from Facebook at one point. That was after oh gosh, after the first week or so. They reported it as being hacked and as being like a scam account. And Facebook sent them an automated thing that says, "We don't see anything that breaks our community standards." And you know my response was, great, that's not what we asked for, but thank you, I guess. There wouldn't be anything on there that would violate the community standards because they hacked into a real account. It's not like they duplicated his information and his photos and then started breaking the rules. They took over a long-established account in good standing, which presumably is the entire point is so that they have that credibility toward Facebook itself.

[00:42:30] Bob: The friend is told that Ryan's hacked account doesn't violate Facebook's community standards so nothing can be done. That's hard to believe, but it's also not unusual. It happened to Paul too. I told you I went online right before talking to Paul, and I found dozens, maybe hundreds of accounts using his photos and pretending to be him. You can bet he's done that too. So after that faked photo of himself, allegedly, in the hospital bed was shared around and he got emotional, he did the only thing he thought could make a difference.

[00:43:07] Paul Nicklen: And I'm, one day I went on this, this rampage and I reported about 20 accounts and then I get some DMs or an email back from, from Meta saying, “We’ve looked into these, and we think that most of these are acceptable." Even though they're obvious scams using my name to contact people, and I have people DM-ing me saying, "This person with this account reached me. We know it's not you. Just letting you know." And every time now I write, "Please block and report and I'll do the same." And I'm doing that, but it seems like Meta's really slow to the party on this and not taking significant action.

[00:43:40] Bob: Well slow to the party is maybe one thing, but they're, they're actually telling you to your face, no this is actually doesn't break our terms of service, so we're going to let it go on.

[00:43:49] Paul Nicklen: Yeah. I just got that email about 10 days ago, and I was like, what? You, you're joking. I mean I always felt this sort of cathartic, every time I reported to block somebody and told the people, you know, who were being scammed to do the same. I was like, aw, at least, at least this has been reported now, like we'll never cat--, catch up to all these guys, but um, when, but when Meta's like no, this is within terms of service, as you said so well, it's, it's uh, that was another, another punch to the gut.

[00:44:14] Bob: Another punch to the gut. Kelly's friends were told her husband's hacked account wasn't violating policy, and Paul's impostors, well they aren't violating policy either. What happened to Kelly's family? To Paul's quest to protect his followers? Why is this problem so hard to fix, and what does artificial intelligence have to do with that? And what has Facebook said about the problem? Well, that's all next week on The Perfect Scam.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:44:52] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org, and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us or just send us some feedback. That address again is: theperfectscampodcast@aarp.org. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

The Perfect ScamSM is a project of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, which equips consumers like you with the knowledge to give you power over scams.

 

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