One minute you're having a quiet evening on your home computer. The next, you're exchanging messages with Nigerian royalty. Don't let this be you!
Thank you for joining me here in the internet parlor. I apologize for waking you all, but this simply could not wait. I’ve determined that one of you, here in this internet mansion, is an imposter! Yes, one of you is lying about your identity.
Perhaps it’s you, Stacey, the Instagram model who is constantly spamming links to diet pill stores on random posts. All of your conversations seem to always come back to the aforementioned diet pills. Your face was also stolen from a collection of 2012 intramural tennis champions.
However, it may be you, Jeff. You claim to be my grandson, and yet your only communications to me are emails asking for money to bail you out of jail. You claim I can’t talk to your parents or else you’ll get in trouble, but surely I’m not the only one who finds this all suspicious.
And finally, there’s you, Christopher. You’ve told us all you’re a Nigerian Prince and that we need to wire you $5,000 to help you escape the country. In return, you’ll grant us each $10,000 once you can access your accounts again. While this offer may be compelling, I find it worthy of some skepticism.
In fact, there are multiple imposters here! Do you, dear reader, know how I determined who the imposters are? Read on, and you may become quite the internet detective yourself.
Here are the top eight tips to spot an imposter online!
1. Recognize the risks and reality.
The first step towards spotting an online imposter is understanding that anyone could be lying about who they are. This is generally true, but all the more true online.
“Understand the limitations of your technology,” advised Monica Eaton-Cardone, owner & COO of Chargebacks911. “Communicating with someone online is sort of like shouting at a stranger through a locked door, minus the peep-hole: You’re never entirely sure who the person is, and it’s incumbent upon you to adequately vet the person before you unlock your deadbolt.
“Like it or not, the responsibility is yours. The online world is eerily similar to communicating behind a locked door because there are barriers to transparency. Clearly, texting with someone online, whether you know them or not, is radically different than talking to them in person.”
2. Ask direct questions.
Back in the day, if you wanted to trick someone into giving you money, you had to actually and actively maintain an ongoing character performance. Really, it was an acting challenge as much as anything else. But now these lazy scammers can just rely on automated bots to do the foolery for them. Luckily, those bots can’t stand up to much scrutiny.
“If you’re not sure, ask direct, follow-up questions that necessitate more than yes or no,” recommended Eaton-Cardone. “Some online impostors rely on scam-bots that spit-out different prepackaged responses to inquiries.
“This might happen, for instance, when a scam-bot poses as a Facebook friend and sends you an urgent message, requesting money because of an unusual emergency. When you respond, the bot will respond back but fortunately, its technology isn’t anywhere close to being as robust as a real person’s responses.
“So ask direct questions. Be specific. Usually, these fabricated conversations become clumsier the longer they go, and the technological limitations become more obvious.”
3. Ask trick questions.
If you’re actually engaging with a real person and not a bot, you may have to get a bit sneakier with your questions. To beat a trickster, you must become a trickster.
“It’s always dangerous to reply to suspicious emails, but here’s another tactic that might be useful with email, social media, and maybe even over the phone or face to face,” offered cybersecurity expert and author Greg Scott. “Challenge the potential attacker with a bogus question. I see people on social media all the time who try to impersonate friends.
“Let’s say Roy and I took a trip last year to northern Minnesota. And then somebody impersonating Roy emails or wants to connect with me over social media. If I’m not sure whether it’s really Roy, I’ll challenge with a question, something like, “Hey Roy, what was the name of the restaurant where we ate lunch in our trip to Iowa a couple years ago?” The only correct answer is, it’s a bogus question and we never took a trip to Iowa, we took a trip to northern Minnesota.
“One time, somebody impersonated a family friend and so I complimented her on the cookies she sent last week and asked for the recipe. The correct answer was, there were no cookies. If you’re not sure, challenge with a question like that and evaluate the answer. Use your creativity.”
4. Reach out in another way.
Rather than just trusting a profile created on one web site, try to reach out to the person in a different way.
“Contact the person on a different platform,” urged Eaton-Cardone. “If you receive an urgent-but-suspicious message from a Facebook friend or business colleague, it might be a good idea to stop responding and start calling.
“Just pick up the phone and say hello. Or you could try sending a follow-up message on a different platform—Skype, LinkedIn, email, whatever. It’s a nice excuse for staying in touch, and the other person should be made aware that his or her account could be compromised.”
5. Examine their photographs.
You are hopefully web savvy enough to realize that any profile without photographs is inherently suspect. But even a profile filled with photos warrants investigation.
“Use Google Image Search Tool,” recommended Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Director for BeenVerified.com. “Google has a wonderful tool to help spot online fakers. You simply drag the person’s photos into Google’s search bar and this will bring up similar pictures it finds on the internet. If these photos were from someone else’s profile, there’s a chance it might show up in the search. Compare names and profiles. It may have your answer straight away.
“While not all photos online are tagged, such as on Facebook, it’s one more easy way to double check a person’s identity. Fakers can steal pictures from someone else’s profile, but it would be hard for them to tag all the people in them. Scroll over the photos, but if they are all tagged and linked to credible Facebook pages, then they are most likely the person in their pictures. As well, look to see if anyone has tagged them in photos too.”
6. Take note if they’re asking for personal information and don’t give it to them.
It should make you very suspicious if the person you’re talking to online is trying to get access to your personal info. Also, don’t give it to them!
“Catfishing is one of the original online stories that emerged, yet people still fall prey to these imposters,” warned Lavelle. “No one should be asking for money for any reason or for your personal information. This is one of the biggest red flags of all.
“It doesn’t matter what they say the emergency or need is—if they’re asking for either, they’re not who they say they are and you should end communication immediately.”
7. Do some investigating.
Beyond their photographs (or lack thereof) see what other information you can dig up online about the person.
“If you can not find someone’s name online, they could be using a fake name,” explained Lavelle. “Or if you do find them, and it does not look like them, they could be identity thieves.”
8. Use your common sense.
Sometimes if your gut is telling you something is up, it’s because something is up. At the end of the day, it’s going to be your call whether to trust someone or not, but it’s important to be very careful.
“Humans are highly social creatures,” offered Eaton-Cardone. “We’ve been interacting with an astoundingly diverse number of people, literally since the moment we were born. It’s not necessarily intuition, but we have a highly sophisticated, innate sense of social construct.
“When something is amiss, we often feel it. We sense it. Something deep inside screams out that this just doesn’t seem right. When we feel this way in public, we obviously become much more vigilant about our surroundings.
“Well, the same should apply to the online world: If someone’s word choices, speech patterns or topic of conversation seems highly unusual, then you need to be extra careful.”
Now it’s up to you. Will you spot the next online imposter?
Monica Eaton-Cardone is the owner, co-founder, and COO of Chargebacks911 (@chargebacks911), the first global company dedicated to preventing chargeback fraud, eliminating cyber-shoplifting and safeguarding the “eCommerce experience” for retailers, banks, buyers and sellers. Chargebacks911 manages billions of online transactions annually and has helped its clients recover over $1 billion in disputed revenue. Monica is also the author of Chargebacks for Dummies (published in 2018), part of the best-selling instructional/reference book series.
Justin Lavelle is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com (@BeenVerified). BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses, and property records.
Greg Scott (@DGregScott) is a veteran of the tumultuous IT industry. After surviving round after round of layoffs at Digital Equipment Corporation, a large computer company in its day, he branched out on his own in 1994 and started Scott Consulting. A larger firm bought Scott Consulting in 1999, just as the dot com bust devastated the IT Service industry. A glutton for punishment, he went out on his own again in late 1999 and started Infrasupport Corporation, this time with a laser focus on infrastructure and security. In late summer, 2015, after “Bullseye Breach” was published, he accepted a job offer with Red Hat, Inc. an enterprise software company. Greg Scott’s two novels have a cybersecurity theme, and he hopes readers enjoy the fiction and learn about internet threats.
Andrew Tavin is a writer, comedian, and a full-time content manager for OppLoans. He graduated with a BFA in TV Writing from Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, worked as a writer for BrainPOP, and created a branded comedy video series for the National Retail Federation called “Interview Day.” He performs around the country and his writing has also appeared on Collegehumor, Funny or Die, and Sparklife.
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