November 11, 2020

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection Warns of Scams on Social Media

As people spend more and more time online, they increasingly use social media to gain a connection with the outside world. The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) wants social media users to know that scammers are capitalizing on this new trend.

In the first six months of 2020, the Federal Trade Commission reports consumers lost at least $117 million to scams that started on social media. OCP wants residents to be aware of some of the most common social media scams, how to identify them and how to avoid becoming victims.

Among the major scams on social media that seek to capitalize on the added time people spend on the Internet due to the COVID-19 health crisis are ones that involve romance, pop-up retail websites and offers of grants or financial aid. Social media profiles, like glossy websites, are inexpensive for scammers to create, can be fabricated in a matter of hours and have a professional look to them.

Romance scams are an increasing risk to online daters—a risk that has tremendously increased as social interactions have been forced online. While attempting to find love via social media, some people instead find themselves attracted to a scammer trying to trick them into sending money.

Using information a person posts in a social media profile, scammers use the personal details to create a targeted profile for the person they are setting up. In 2019, the FTC reported there were $201 million in losses attributed to information that started on dating websites. Most often, the scammer claims to be working in another country. This explains the lack of in-person interaction or sporadic connectivity issues. They quickly profess deep feelings, use the dating website to build trust and eventually seek money for a plane ticket, surgery, customs or visa fees or an emergency need that they can make sound legitimate. Scammers ask for money to be wired, sent via gift cards or by using P2P cash apps in “friends and family” or “gift” mode. Once funds are sent in those forms, they are hard to trace—or recover—once the scam is discovered.

Another scam involves pop-up websites being advertised on social media sites that claim to be selling scarce or in-demand goods. People who have spent time and effort unsuccessfully trying to find rare items can easily be deceived into thinking they have finally found the focus of their search. Sometimes these products do not exist and never arrive. Those are part of scams—95 percent of retail scams start with a Facebook or Instagram ad and end at Shopify store.

Unsolicited text message scams offer grants or financial relief, but really seek to get money or personal information. These are a variant of “smishing” scams.

OCP has some tips on how consumers can help protect themselves from these type of social media scams. It suggests:
  • Investigate your romance: Look into your new love interest beyond what he or she is telling you. Search the story being given. Some have been used so often there are websites that relate similar stories that may prove to be false. These storylines can include themes such as “doctor working in Peace Corps.” Put the photograph sent into a Google Image search and see if it is a photo used by others.
  • Research the retailer: Is the offer too good to be true? Does the business have a strange name? Are the same photographs being used by many different merchants? Research the alleged seller and theme by typing the name of the company and/or the type of sale to see if there are complaints. Pay by credit card, which can protect a consumer against certain false sales. Debit card, gift card, wire transfer or P2P app transactions often are not recoverable if the merchandise does not arrive.
  • Review your privacy settings: Social media accounts have a privacy setting which controls who has access to posts. Set them to “private” so only people you allow can see your post. You can control what ads you see on your feed by going into your settings. However, these platforms continuously change default ad settings so you need to check back and revise often.
  • Avoid unsolicited texts: Whether through a message app or through a cell number, scammers can seek out potential victims. Do not engage with unsolicited messages offering money. Never give out personal information and never send money.