Don’t Get Fooled Again: Fake Identities, False Friends, and Online Safety in the Age of Social Media

You know that old saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

Social MediaWhen it comes to false friends or identities with absent, spurious, or fake credentials, the same proverb applies to social media, notably Facebook. “If the account identity cannot be verified, it probably isn’t for real.”

There are many people who will use various tactics, some deceptive and questionable, often using what is familiar to you, to gain your confidence. Alternatively, there are also those  who, by acts of commission or omission (So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:17), provide little to no information to verify the authenticity of their identity. Both scenarios can create a danger to your online security.

A profile that is not clearly identified with the user or entity (person, place, company, or organization) is both spurious and suspicious, perhaps even unethical, but also a violation of Facebook’s Community Standards.

This article is about staying safe, protecting yourself from the dangers of false identities on social media. (This article is an expansion of an idea and previous post from 2014, Social Media 101: False Friends, Fake Identities, and Social Media Safety.)

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray, We don’t get fooled again, no, no.
Won’t Get Fooled Again, Lyrics by Pete Townsend, Performed by The Who

Of Course, Everything On The Internet Is True
Assume nothing. As we discovered over the years, everything on the Internet and social media is not what it seems. Names, pictures, identification, and information can be used to obfuscate and deceive, Russian election tampering not withstanding. Empirical evidence be damned: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck,” may not necessarily be true.

If I have a picture of a Jeep on my profile banner, does that make an employee or emissary of the SUV brand? Some months ago I put a screenshot of the raccoons from the GEICO commercial as my profile banner. Does that make me a spokesperson for GEICO? Or an authorized representative? Or, perhaps, does it make me a raccoon? Now, I’m just being ludicrous. Nope. If the profile or page seems suspicious, you may very well be right.

Take precautions if a person, place, or organization, even if you think you know them, attempts to friend you, have you like their page, or join their group. Verify their identity by checking their online information on their page or profile, or contact them via the same, to be assured they are who they appear to be. If the former cannot be confirmed and the latter receives no response, there’s a high probability that the you’ve found or have been contacted by a false or fake profile or page. For your own online safety, do not accept the invitation and also, as a responsible member of the social media community, report the suspicious profile or page to the Facebook.

Know the Suspicious Identity Markers
Look for questionable identification markers such as the lack of identity information or authorization.  The most basic scam is simply a profile/page with information completely absent of identification in the About section. Another red flag is having a nickname or simply a contrived, uncommon, or unconventional name like TruckGuy or BikerGirl, rather than their given name.. (Alternatively, as a more humorous example there are those pages for somebody’s pet, Browser the Friendly Boxer, but the owner is never identified either. Woof!)

Another notable ploy is to have a profile name that is not consistent with the principal person or company who created the profile/page or posts to the same. For example, the profile name is one gender, but the posts created are identified by an opposite gender. For example, the name is “FBIBoy,” but attached to the post is, “FBIBoy has updated her profile.”

Additionally, if the page is new and/or does not have a frequent posts, it may also be a fake profile. While some people spend little time on social media, it is more common that some people will post on their profile or page at sometime.

Personal Experience: Over the years, thanks to my personal profile and the international reach of my music review page, I have been the recipient (or intended victim) of unidentified persons who have used one or all of these techniques to gain my association.  And, aside from not accepting an invitation, I have reported many of these account holders to Facebook. Their pages were both investigated and removed by Facebook.

Some markers are not necessarily indicators of identity authenticity or accuracy. One is a page/profile that has been liked or “friended” by people with whom you may or may not be familiar. Another is a page or profile that has pictures commonly associated with the person or company.

To the former, the fact that someone, whether you know them or not, has friended the profile/page in question does not necessarily vouch for its authenticity or veracity. They could have easily fallen prey to the false familiarity the that was created by those same associations, like friends or content like pictures. Regarding pictures, many pictures associated with an online entity are easily accessible and copied from the Internet, and then used to make questionable profiles through creating false familiarity. This practice is common for phishing profiles/pages that are associated with commercial brand recognition (like Coke or Jeep, et al). This tactic has its roots in email scams and phishing. However, persons, places, and organizations have also had their identity co-opted for create anything from satire sites to fake accounts.

Essentially, all these things are used to give you a false sense of assurance of the authenticity of the identity of the entity behind the profile/page attempting to hook you into their confidence.

Make Contact To Verify Identity, But Don’t Be Surprised By The Response
Lastly, if identity information is lacking, message the profile or page if you have doubts about a request/page/group and ask them to identify themselves. I know, this begs the question; if they haven’t provided identifying information, the probably do not want you to know who they are and will not identify themselves when asked. And you would be correct. If the profile/page is authentic you should expect an expedited and timely reply. If they don’t reply, it’s another plausible reason that the page/profile may be inauthentic and spurious, especially if any of the above questionable identity markers are present. Again, exercise caution and vigilance.

Craig Hartranft