Social Media Scams: The Exploitation Of Good Intentions

Posted: January 23, 2014 in Articles
Tags: , , , , ,

Amanda Rieth

Above is an old photo of the 7 year old daughter of Amanda Rieth who at the time was battling Stage IV neuroblastoma, this beautiful little girl is now 13 and has shown no signs of the cancer since 2007.

But this photo is still circulating around social networks without the Rieth family’s consent and being used by scammers to tug on your heartstrings. And it works. Requests to like and share this photo and to pray for this little girl are met with a strong response from good-hearted people.

This isn’t the only scam campaign designed to harvest Facebook likes and shares. In a brilliantly informative article CNN’s Doug Gross outlines that scammers exploit other viral content such as “an image of a premature baby, pictures of military troops cuddling puppies and an image of a young boy pouring water on a man’s cigarette with the text – Sorry papa … I need you.

But why you ask? Why would anyone feel the need to exploit these heartwarming stories just to get more likes and shares? As is seemingly always the case the answer is money. Facebook’s algorithms for showing popular content in your news feed rely on many factors including likes and shares. These scammers exploit the good intentions of the public to increase the number of likes and shares for their page and then turn around and strip the page of its previous content and promote unwanted products or malware, or sell the page to someone who will do the same. Doug Gross contacted the owner of a Facebook page displaying the photo of Amanda Rieth’s daughter and asked if the owner planned to sell the page. The chilling two word response he received was “How much?”

Sadly the extent of the scam may not stop once the bait and switch maneuver is over. Using Facebook’s developer tools these scammers can acquire personal information about each individual who has shared and liked the photo. Information collected such as “gender, location and age” is then used to produce more targeted attacks for individual users. Targeted attacks can come in the form of phishing scams designed to trick the user into providing further information to the scammers often with the intention of stealing the victim’s identity.

And then there are the old fashion con-jobs such as the gut wrenching allegations by the FBI and a U.S. Attorney in Connecticut that one woman created a fake online identity and falsely claimed to be the aunt of a child who died in the Sandy Hook shootings. The accused used her Facebook profile to solicit donations to a PayPal account for a “funeral fund.” This callous act is sickening to imagine but through the acts of concerned citizens this fraud was exposed and the parties responsible are being prosecuted to the fullest extent permitted of the law.

At the heart of these scams is the desire to reach as many people as quickly as possible. Most often we see heartwarming stories or tragedies exploited as they garner more views, and with more and more tragedies happening every day there is a ready supply. Sadly today another school shooting was reported at Purdue University. Purdue quickly became a trend on twitter and it’s no surprise that one of the first tweets within the trend is a spam link to purchase more twitter followers.


But these scammers are willing to exploit any popular topics. Pop stars and celebrities are commonly trending on twitter and news stories about their escapades are always popular with readers. Cybercriminals exploit the popularity of stars like Justin Bieber to get the public to click on links to malicious websites. I, for one, beliebe the world will be a much safer place if our dearest Justin were to retire from the spotlight. Security firm McAfee releases an annual list of celebrities who are most frequently linked to malicious websites. In 2013 the ten most exploited celebrities were:

  1. Lily Collins
  2. Avril Lavigne
  3. Sandra Bullock
  4. Kathy Griffin
  5. Zoe Saldana
  6. Katy Perry
  7. Britney Spears
  8. Jon Hamm
  9. Adriana Lima
  10. Emma Roberts

Be careful perusing your social media feed. Before you like or share something or click on a link, do a little research. If the source of the photo or article appears to be trustworthy then share to your heart’s content, we cannot let these scammers deter us from empathy or acts of charity. But if the source of the media you’re considering is suspicious report it to the website’s moderators. We can’t prevent people from exploiting their own free will to spread scams but we can stop in the act. The following is a guide for how to report suspicious content for each of the most popular social media websites:


  • Facebook – On a page displaying suspicious content the link to “Report Page” can be found under the top banner image on the right side. Click the settings wheel and select “Report Page”.


  • Twitter – The bottom right corner of every tweet has four menu options, “Report Tweet” can be found in the “More” menu.


  • Instagram – Under each Instagram photo on the right side is button with three dots. “Report inappropriate” can be found within this menu.


  • Pinterest – Under each pin on the right side is a grey flag image, select this image to flag as inappropriate, select a reason for your choice and select “Report Pin”.

About Author:

James Green is a security researcher for Android antivirus company Armor for Android. James has worked in the Android security field for several years and provides privacy and security advice to Android users.

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