Social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, Linkedin and Twitter have been around for years, but only recently have they reached the tipping point of media saturation and shown up the general public’s radar. As with all things well-trafficked there are plenty of individuals and companies who will do their best to use these sites to fill their own coffers via morally questionable means.
Just this year social networks popularity has actually passed that of personal email. It’s the fourth most popular activity on the web. The time folks spend on social networking sites already accounts for 10% of all the time spent on the internet, and that time spent rate is growing at a clip 3% faster than the growth rate of the internet as a whole.
Social networking sites provide a micro-society. You keep in touch with friends, meet strangers, show pictures, share links to hot pop culture trends and play games. As with any society, the bad guys are lurking there too, just beneath the surface. Here are some of the ways they will try to scam you.
There are plenty of ways a scammer can steal the identity of a social network member and then pose as that person. They do it by setting up phony pages that direct a person to re-enter their user name and password. A bogus email might direct them to re-enter their info. They could have set up a bogus wireless connection and then thrown up a page asking the user to re-enter the information. However they go about it, once the hacker has those two items, the user name and password, they have the ability to log onto the social networking site as that person freely.
Once they do so, there are a number of different ways they can take advantage of those who know the victim.
There have been reports of hackers posing as soldiers. They contact their grandparents asking for money to fix a broken car so they can get back home.
There have been numerous cases of con artists with access to genuine accounts who use the chat feature. These chats are a means for real-time dialogue via text. They will chat their friends claiming to be stuck in a foreign country and requesting they wire money to them immediately.
Money is not always the root of all evil. The news was inundated last year with the story of a mother in Missouri who created a fake social networking account and used it to cyber-bully a young female rival of her daughter’s. The young girl who was harassed eventually committed suicide.
GAMES ARE NOT ALL FUN AND GAMES
A recent trend in social networking sites are users who participate in online games through the sites. Facebook offers games such as Mafia Wars, Farmville and Restaurant City. These interactive games encourage members to get their friends to join and in doing so are spreading quickly. Farmville alone boasts 63 million users. Recently the games have come under fire as being nothing more than entertaining facades that hide basic cash-grab scams and other shady practices.
The biggest name in social gaming, Zynga, gets over one-third of its revenue from its questionable “commercial offers” as well as lead-generation systems.
The commercial offers come in many different forms, but all of them are shady.
The games offer currency, in-game money to be used to succeed in the game, for filling out IQ tests. After the test has been filled out, you are asked to provide a cell phone number so that they can text the user the results of their test. Entering this number is about the dumbest thing one can do though, as the fine print (sometimes even located on a different page altogether and nearly illegible) states that providing your number also signs you up for a monthly fee of $9.99 charged to your cell phone bill.
Some ads, which again add to the money used in the game, are similarly set up for horoscopes. You fill in the information, provide your cell number, and the results are sent to you. Of course, you aren’t aware you will be getting charged up to $10 for the service, or that it will recur monthly until you have it removed. At least you still be getting a horoscope though, the IQ test charges you monthly without even providing a service.
Children are being given cell phones at very young ages these days. They are also more likely to play these games, and fill out the surveys for money and then ask to be texted the results. There are numerous stories of parents who missed the small monthly charges on the cell phone bills, until years later, at which point they have paid hundreds of dollars for a useless service.
Another bogus practice offers in-game money if you sign up to receive a free learning CD. Users are told they need only pay $10 shipping to receive the free gift. The fine print, again on a completely separate page, then states that you will actually be getting the full set of CDs for over $180, which will be billed unless they are returned within a certain number of days.
Mike Arrington at TechCrunch estimates that Facebook might be taking as much as $50million annually from Zygna alone. Although there has been outrage about these practices, led by the vocal Arrington himself, and a class action lawsuit is pending, the amount of money these corporations stand to lose will not be let go of so easily.
Facebook and Zygna have both claimed to have severed business relations with these types of snake-oil companies. As of last week one ad provider was coming under fire and there website still listed Facebook and MySpace as clients.
The latest controversy, as reported by NBC Bay Area online, was for an offer for more virtual in-game money for filling out a survey. This survey did not take the user’s money, but asked them questions about their age, where they lived and thoughts on health care reform. The survey was for a company called Get Health Reform Right. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so much a survey as a red herring and a front for health insurance companies and health maintenance organizations.
Upon completion, the “survey” results in an email being sent to the user’s congressional representative that implied support of the current health care system and took pot shots at ideas such as public options or single payer healthcare. The survey’s true purpose was to figure out where you live so that it could forward the following message to your appropriate representative:
“I am concerned a new government plan could cause me to lose the employer coverage I have today. More government bureaucracy will only create more problems, not solve the ones we have.”
By the time the game player’s realize the survey’s true purpose, its’ too late. Gambit is the company responsible for managing this offer between GHRR and the social networking game players. As of December 9th, 2009 they still listed Facebook and MySpace as clients on their website.
Social networking is great way to reconnect with old friends, keep in touch with family and even meet new people. That is the networking aspect really working in the new technological age. But with any new trend, there will be those who exploit it for less than admirable means. So feel free to link in, but be careful too.