It doesn’t always work out this way, but your social media feeds should ideally be places of fun and entertainment, for connecting with friends and family. However, they’re also a place where hackers and scammers lurk, ready to take your online identity away from you—or worse. You might think you already know what to look for, but scammers are relying on your complacency.
Here we’ll guide you through some of the most common cons perpetrated on social media, and how you can make sure you see them coming. There’s no 100% foolproof way of staying safe online, but there are certainly ways of significantly minimizing the risk of running into trouble, and that starts with being aware.
Yes, yes, you tell yourself: There’s no way I’d be conned into giving money to someone I’ve only ever spoken to on social media or a dating app. The truth is that this type of scam pulls in more money for criminals than any other charade ($2,600 is the median reported loss). It preys on our need for attention and validation, and it’s not always as straightforward to spot as you might think.
Friend requests and connection attempts from people you don’t know are the first warning signs. On networks such as Twitter, connecting with relative strangers is common practice, but we’d recommend doing at least some basic detective work before accepting requests. Looking at posting histories and mutual connections can help, as can reverse image searches to see if someone is actually who they say they are.
Repeated excuses for not being able to meet up in real life are usually followed with a series of crises and emergencies that money is required for, and the situation spirals from there. Social media accounts and profiles on dating apps can be removed from existence with just a few clicks, which is worth bearing in mind when you’re engaging with people.
Even if you think you’re safe from such a scam (and variations on it, like business and networking opportunities), there might be older or younger people that you’re responsible for that are a little more vulnerable to this kind of approach. You don’t want to be spying on family members, but you can at least make them aware that this is the scam that rakes in more cash for the criminals than any other.
One of the main objectives of many scams is to get you to click on a link that you shouldn’t be clicking on—it may lead to a dodgy app or game, or a malware-infested site, or a download that has eyes on your data or your contacts list. These links come in a multitude of forms, but they have one common thread: They’ll all encourage you to act fast.
You might have seen links claiming that there are embarrassing photos of you on the web, or that a friend of yours is in trouble, or that something at work needs to be attended to urgently. Other links will come with time-sensitive giveaways and contests, or promises to tell you something about yourself, or promises of news that’s engineered to catch as many clicks as possible (and which will be entirely made up).
It’s not always easy to spot these links—your friends and family might not be quite as security-conscious as you are, and if other accounts have been compromised then the message might seem to come from a trustworthy source (the email from “the boss” is now a common phishing tactic). There will usually be something off with the tone, though, and the message will always be designed to get you to act as quickly and with as little thought as possible.
If you can tell a link is dodgy, avoid it; if you’re not sure, still avoid it. It won’t take you long to check up on the authenticity of the message, either by checking the sender’s profile or asking the sender directly if you already know them (preferable through a different channel of communication).
Following on from the last section, scammers will often count on you leaving common sense behind if there’s a chance of claiming a free gift, making money, getting something that’s in demand, or bagging a big discount on an item. With the pandemic hitting this year, reports of unreceived goods are quickly shooting up.
In terms of shopping scams, whether it’s face masks or Nintendo Switch consoles, if it’s sold out everywhere else then there’s little chance that a small outlet with a basic website and a limited social media output has managed to get its hands on stock. As always, a little bit of research can go a long way: Look at follower counts and posting history and company records before parting with any cash.
The same goes for free gifts—free items can of course be real and genuine, but they’re usually offered by companies with plenty of brand recognition who ask you to do something in return (like fill out a survey or buy something first). Be wary of links that immediately ask you to sign in again using your social media credentials.
If something seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is—that extends to streaming movies without paying for them and getting premium software for free, too. These sorts of honey traps are very likely to come with unwelcome strings attached.
A lot of the time, scammers are after your identity: They want to be able to access your accounts and impersonate you for all kinds of schemes. Remember that unless you’ve made your accounts private, anyone on the internet can see your Instagram posts (and stories) and your Twitter tweets: They don’t even need to have an account to look at what you’re up to and take your pictures off you.
Resist requests for personal data, whether it’s from contacts, third-party apps and quizzes, or the social networks themselves. Think about the information that other people can use to pretend to be you: When your birthday is (did you celebrate it on Instagram?), where you work (did you mention it on Twitter?), what your new baby’s full name is (did you post it to Facebook when they were born?).
Don’t forget that scammers are more than capable of piecing together different data from different sources too: Your proud photo outside a newly bought house, real estate listings showing recent sales in your area, and a social media post that shows you’ve just left on an around-the-world trip, for example.
Connecting to third-party apps using social media accounts is convenient and quick, but it’s a good idea to keep this down to a minimum and double-check the amount of information you’re giving away at the same time—while most apps will simply be out to target ads at you, the fewer connections you have, the safer you’re going to be.