Scammers posing as Canadian immigration experts exploited Facebook and WhatsApp groups to target migrants in a months long data harvesting scheme. In some cases, migrants wrapped up in the scam are convinced to recruit over a dozen more desperate people, allegedly in exchange for help applying and paying for a visa. That help never comes. Instead, users find themselves redirected to fake websites created to suck up their personal data.
The scam, which reportedly targets Facebook and WhatsApp groups with tens of thousands of mostly Latin American and African users, was revealed in an investigation by the Tech Transparency Project. Those scam posts reportedly violate multiple Meta policies and remained on Meta’s platform long after fact-checkers and government officials from Canada and Latin America publicly raised concerns, the TPP alleges.
Scammers involved in the scheme crafted fake posts claiming the Canadian government is recruiting around 450,000 migrant workers. The posts, which claim to originate from Canadian legal experts, go on to offer migrants free travel and housing, immediate work permits and legal assistance if they follow a link. The migrants are then redirected to a third party website which collects their email addresses, names, marital status, and occupation. TPP traces the scam posts back to early 2022 with the first mining website registered in February. Another smaller account posing as an immigration law firm called The Visa Immigration Service reportedly shared similar Facebook posts, except those promised workers visa and immgration opportunities in the United States.
In an effort to maximize their scheme’s reach, scammers in some cases forced users to copy a scam message and send it to 15 of their Facebook or WhatsApp friends before they can click a link to the website with the supposed visa information. This made migrants unintentional solicitors in a perverse data harvesting pyramid scheme.
The dozens of posts identified by TPP reportedly remained online for months after officials spoke out about them. In February, the Canadian embassy in Panama wrote a Facebook post highlighting the scam and cautioned users against providing personal information. Honduran national police authored their own cautionary Facebook post weeks later.
“Do not trust everything that is shared on social networks, they can solicit confidential information and make you a victim of manipulation,” the Honduran national police wrote in a facebook post with giant red letters spelling out “FALSO.”
The TPP claims these posts violate multiple Meta policies including those prohibiting fraud and deception.
“The subject of the posts, the Canadian government, has clearly and repeatedly condemned the scam,” the TPP said. “Yet Meta continues to allow posts amplifying the visa scam to circulate unchecked, suggesting that it’s not conducting even the most basic content moderation.”
Meta moved to take down three flagged posts that violated its policies this week. In an email to Gizmodo a Meta spokesperson said the TPP didn’t share their findings with the company before reaching out to members of the media.
“We will review the report when we see it and continue to remove content that breaks our rules,” the spokesperson said.
It’s worth reiterating here, once again, that several of the scam posts were highlighted by multiple governmental organizations and fact-checkers more than six months ago. It unclear why those complaints never led to an enforcement action.
“We are committed to stopping scam attempts, and we encourage users to report suspicious content to us,” the Meta spokesperson said.
Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t the only tech companies implicated in the scam. Several of the data harvesting websites, according to the investigator, reportedly used Google analytics and advertising tools to collect more data on migrants. The scammers can then allegedly make money off the websites’ page views. Scammers also briefly used services from URL shortening service TinyURL to shorten hyperlinks, however, the company reportedly terminated its relationship with the groups upon learning about the scam.
Gizmodo has learned that Google’s aware of the accounts mentioned in the report and is currently looking into them.
TPP traced many of the scam posts to a Meta user going by the name “Janelis Osoria,” who claims they are an immigration attorney. That user apparently changed their name slightly two separate times and posted almost exclusively about the scam for around six months. Gizmodo could not immediately confirm whether or not the user going by Janelis Osoria was a real person or not.
Meanwhile, TPP says it linked two of the scam web pages to Massachusetts, a woman named Brenda Paulino Valdez. Google previously flagged several of Valdez’s websites in the past, some of which claimed to offer assistance to users applying for food stamps.
The scammers, according to the report, were unique in their “brazenness,” with the same accounts parody posting identical messages repeatedly. Postnatally even more concerning, however, was Meta’s response, or really its lack of response.
“These oversights can have real consequences,” the TPP writes. “The recent deception of migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard shows that fake offers of jobs and public assistance are often difficult to detect for migrants who are seeking help after the arduous journey north.”