By: Heather McKinney
Seniors are increasingly using social media to connect with friends and family, and to make new connections. A 2020 Pew Research report estimates 73% of those older than 50 and 45% of those older than 65 are using at least one social media site. Alongside seniors, however, are scammers using social media to trick unsuspecting users out of money.
Recently, a woman in Fort Worth, Texas, believed she was chatting with Grammy-award winning superstar Bruno Mars. “Mars” asked her for money to fuel his private plane and pay for tour expenses. As you may have guessed, this was not the famous singer but was instead an imposter in another country.
All told, the conman took the victim for $100,000, leaving her heartbroken and humiliated. And she’s not the only one. According to the Federal Trade Commission, “imposter scams” are a common way for online predators to try to gain access to your wallet.
Here are some tips on how to protect yourself from being swindled on social media.
If you open your private message inbox to find messages from a celebrity, the first thing to do is investigate the sender’s profile. Most celebrities have blue checkmarks beside their usernames.
Social media websites assign these checkmarks only after the site has verified the identity of the user.
If you get a message from “Tom Hanks” on Facebook, check the profile and confirm whether it has the blue checkmark. If so, Tom Hanks really does want to chat with you!
You can use Google to search for the celebrity’s name plus the word “scam.” This will show you whether fraudsters have used that identity to convince unsuspecting fans to send money and gift cards. You can also search the celebrity’s name plus the social media site to find their official account.
For instance, search for “Tom Hanks Instagram” and you’ll see his profile is @TomHanks with 9.4 million followers. Again, high follower counts and blue checkmarks are signs you’re dealing with the real person.
This tip applies to any type of interaction on social media.
Scammers will impersonate anyone in an effort to drain your bank account. Remember, legitimate companies and charities will never ask you to pay them in gift cards. And once you have given away a gift card, you can almost never get the money back. Unless you personally know someone, it is never a good idea to wire funds or send gift cards to people over the internet.
In addition to celebrities, online grifters sometimes use social media to impersonate family members. If you get an urgent message from a family member asking for wired funds or gift cards, call that person at a number you know belongs to them. Usually urgent calls for bail or travel money are nothing more than an imposter’s scheme.
If this common scam has happened to you, you can help protect someone else. Report the fraud to the social media platform where it occurred and to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ReportFraud.ftc.gov. You can get assistance making a report at 877-382-4357.
Heather McKinney is an Equal Justice Works fellow and attorney at Legal Aid of North West Texas, where she provides legal representation to victims of elder abuse and exploitation. She also conducts community education and outreach to foster an organized, community-based response to senior abuse and exploitation instances. You can learn more about Heather and her fellowship HERE.