‘Tis the season when some extra money comes in handy. Imagine then getting news you have won money from www.bezosearthfund.org.
You’re entitled to some of the money that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is giving away — or so you think.
A quick check of the internet, and you learn that sure enough, this Earth Fund is the real deal. And it must be the real deal because the news of your amazing luck comes from an old friend you haven’t connected with in some time. He says you’re on a list he saw for a big chunk of Bezos’ money, with no strings attached.
But there’s no way to confirm anything about the specific giveaway claim. Amazingly, the same week another old friend tells you about other possibilities for receiving a six-figure sum of money. This time the news of newfound money is coming from a department head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
These sorts of online come-ons are part of a perfect storm for fraud according the San Diego County District Attorney’s representative on the Computer and Technology Crimes High-Tech Task Force, known as CATCH. And the Federal Trade Commission confirms that they are on the increase.
Besides the enticement of money, there are emotional pulls that come into play. For instance, they make you think you are reconnecting with old friends during the holidays, said Ryan Karkenny of the District Attorney’s Office.
“When an old friend reaches out, you reach back,” he said, “It’s an inherent instinct if you see a familiar face or name to respond to.”
Social media scams are the most popular type of fraud, involving one in four cases since 2021, according to the FTC. Reported losses jumped during the height of the pandemic, dripped briefly, and now are up 18-fold since 2017
I reached out to Karkenny after recently receiving these curious Bezos/USDA offers and other similar “surprises” from a number of friends I haven’t connected with in some time or only connect with sporadically.
One friend is the former governor of Oklahoma and another a journalist who now writes a personal blog. My friend the governor had passed away six years ago, and a “new friend” was an actor who had also died. The greetings all began with a simple “HI” message and I recognized several “friends’” names as well as someone who just “friended me.”
Stacey Wood, an expert on the psychology of fraud and a professor at Scripps College, runs a research lab and also works with law enforcement and adult protective services.
“That’s interesting,” she said of the social media communications I had received. “I haven’t seen that. But I’ve seen something similar. I call them ‘hybrids.’”
And so I followed up on my conversations with people who are both living and dead but all alive on Facebook Messenger. All lead back to individual Facebook pages, with the main Facebook photo matching the Messenger photo.
There is not much detail in the Facebook accounts; it varies from page to page. One page had several other people I knew listed as friends. Karkenny advised me to never click on the links that the Messenger posts were suggesting, warning that “there are lots of bad things that can come from clicking on an unfamiliar link without really knowing where you’re going.”
What I did do was carry on a Messenger dialogue with the various characters reaching out to me.
Playing dumb, I dropped in questions that I knew how my real-life friends would respond to. Like the former governor who played basketball into his late 70s and was a forward on a number of senior national teams. I asked on Messenger if he was still involved with baseball, and he or she responded, “yes.” But I knew the governor’s love was basketball.
Journalist Cecil Scaglione, who was one of my Facebook friends reaching out with news of my winnings, is now the editor of Mature Life Features. He said, “I didn’t know I had a Facebook page because I don’t use it. I do get constant alerts that I should climb aboard.”
I strung along the phony Scaglione, starting in mid-September, wanting to see what he/she/they were up to. The result: a series of communications over a four-week period ensued, intended to be personal and to build trust.
Here is a part of that Messenger conversation chain:
“I have strep but getting better”
“Trying to put head above waters”
”Bless you and your loved ones”
“Curious if you heard about the winning I just received.”
“It’s USDA Global Green Grant.”
“I got $100,000”
“Did you know how?”
The fraudster provided a link to the USDA payoff along with a photo of a former department chairperson. The other messages were along the same line, all with, a link that supposedly leads you to the promised funds.
Eventually came the pitch from the former governor telling me where “my name appeared on a list” for “the Jeff Bezos Earth Fund program for the year 2022.”
“I got a $90,000 check from them,” the fraudster wrote. “There’s no need of qualifications and it’s not a loan.”
Experts advise that it’s important to report suspected fraud. While reporting is unlikely to result in any action on individual cases, law enforcement officials say it’s worth the effort. Spend the time to report anything you come across as you never know what your complaint may reveal to the cyber sleuths tracking this sort of fraud, said Karkenny.
The FTC reports that people 18-39 are twice as likely as older adults to report these scams, even though losses for seniors are much higher per victim.
Efforts to get a comment and to have Facebook to remove both the phony pages and messages are ongoing. This information will also be forwarded to the FBI at https://www.ic3.gov/.
Meanwhile, the conversations continue with some of my Messenger “friends.”
JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.