A problem for Facebook users: Identity scams

Zuckerberg: "We're responsible" for protecting info

Mark Zuckerberg was prepared for questions from Congress about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook's (FB) data privacy standards, but he also faced another line of questioning: Why are so many fake profiles of real people popping up on the service? 

"My pictures have been stolen and used in fake accounts," Representative Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, told Zuckerberg. "In many cases, people have been extorted for money."

The fake accounts -- often based on stolen photos, as in Kinzinger's case -- may be the flip side to Facebook's problem with Russian political interference and fake news. The service's 2.1 billion users represent an irresistible lure for scammers of all types, including old-fashioned con artists who want to swindle money from trusting Facebook users.  

These criminals once "had to have some level of finesse and appeal," said Eva Velasquez, Identity Theft Resource Center president. "They had to be really good at lying to their faces, and that's how they got people to part with their money." 

She added, "But with all the pictures and photographs we're publicly posting, you can post a fake profile that looks really convincing."

One typical scam is the romance swindle, in which scammers pretend to be someone searching for a romantic connection. Once they have their victim hooked, they ask for money.

In romance swindles, the con artists express interest in their victims, saying they want to get to know them better and expressing romantic feelings for them. The victims believe the con artist is a real person who's looking for a relationship, partly because they see a photo and profile on Facebook or other social media networks. But the con artists typically claim they need money for anything from a ticket to see their new online acquaintance to paying for a health care bill. 

Such crimes are underreported because of the shame victims feel when they realize they've been duped, said Velasquez. Confidence and romance scams across the internet cost victims almost $220 million in 2016, according to the FBI's latest figures. The number of complaints filed with the agency rose about 20 percent in 2016 for all internet-related romance scams.

Profiles are often real people -- but not famous

Scammers tend to create fake profiles based on a certain type of real person: someone with authority but who isn't so famous that it would raise a red flag with their victims. Those could be members of the military or elected officials who may not be household names yet seem credible. 

"It's been a constant battle for us," said Minnesota National Guard Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens, who as part of her public affairs job scans Facebook for fake profiles of service members. "I will go on one day and report seven to eight different fake profiles for people in our organization. A couple days later, I'll come back and they're back. As fast we take them down, they put them back up."

Fake profiles are becoming more sophisticated, Heusdens said. Scammers put more effort into making them look real, and she said it appears to be harder for Facebook to determine if they're fake. 

Zuckerberg said he hopes AI can fix the problem

Artificial intelligence may be able to help, Zuckerberg said on Wednesday. "Long-term, the solution here is to build more AI tools that find patterns of people using the services that no real person would do," he said. 

In the meantime, people who have spotted a fake profile based on them or their friends can report it to Facebook at this link.

How to spot red flags

New Facebook friends who want to build relationships very quickly can be your first tipoff, said Velasquez. 

Second, immediate responses are another red flag. "If you have an interaction with someone who is busy, they won't be online 24/7," she said. 

The biggest warning sign is when a scammer asks for money. "I don't care how plausible the story. That's a huge red flag," she added.

Members of the military shouldn't be asking for money, said Heusdens. "If they say they need help paying for a medical bill, the military pays for medical treatment for soldiers," she said. Likewise, asking for help to buy food is a red flag. 

"We get fed very well," she said.