Episode 7: ‘Connecting the World’
Producer/Director Rolake Bamgbose
A lonely Florida woman established a Facebook romance with a man she thought was an American soldier in Iraq. It wasn’t until she had sent him tens of thousands of dollars from her and her husband’s life savings that she learned her buff, blue-eyed friend was a fake.
Online scams may be as old as the internet, but Facebook has made it easier for scammers to victimize users longing for connection, and to draft unwitting U.S. service members into their schemes. Neither the world’s largest social network nor the world’s most powerful military seem to be able to stop it.
In a special one-hour episode of “The Weekly,” our technology reporter Jack Nicas tries to track down some of these digital con artists.
Jack’s 3 Takeaways
Facebook has tried to clean up its site, but the social platform is teeming with fake accounts, many designed to scam other users. The company estimates there are roughly 120 million fakes on Facebook, though a review of its figures suggests there might be even more. Facebook urges users to flag fakes, but our reporting shows the company regularly rejects or ignores those reports.
Connecting the world has consequences. Though internet scams have persisted for decades, social media sites like Facebook have enabled con artists to more easily impersonate others and more skillfully target victims.
The military, with all its resources and sophistication, seems almost as helpless as the rest of us in being able to stop online impostors.
[Jack answered questions on Reddit about social media scams and online impersonators. Read the transcript.]
[Join the conversation about @theweekly on Twitter and Instagram. #TheWeeklyNYT]
Daniel Anonsen works on a commercial diving team aboard a ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, he said, his online reputation did not prevent him from getting the job. But he still worries that someday he’ll meet a woman who was scammed using his photos. “If I was on the receiving end of that,” he said, “that’d be open license to walk up and approach him: ‘Why are you doing this? Where you been?’” He added, “I think about it regularly when I’m out.” He has no plans to ever return to Facebook and Instagram, though plenty of his impostors are still there.
Akinola Bolaji said he has given up impersonating others online. “I can’t tell my children that I’m living by fraud,” he said. Instead, he messages women with his real Facebook profile, hoping to find a relationship that can help him escape Nigeria. It has been difficult. “They’ll never believe you when they know you’re a Nigerian,” he said. He introduced Jack via video chat to a Texas woman he called his girlfriend. When reached last week, he said she had blocked him.
Kim Joiner, a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, oversees the Pentagon’s social media accounts. Jack provided the Pentagon with his list of 120 fake accounts for three top generals. Two months later, more than 30 of them were still active. All were removed after he sent the list to a Facebook spokeswoman.
Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, said earlier this year that he would reorient the social platform around private, encrypted communication — a reversal from years of efforts to turn the site into a digital town square. The company said it has used software to block billions of fake accounts over the past year. Yet the company estimates Facebook still has roughly 120 million fakes and an additional 250 million duplicate accounts.
Maria is struggling to get back some of the money she lost in a Facebook scam by way of a settlement between the wire-transfer company Western Union and the federal government. Her refund request has been held up because Western Union requires her to provide documentation, including police reports and affidavits. Victims’ rights advocates are lobbying for a law to hold tech companies responsible for scams carried out on their sites. After meetings with nearly a dozen congressional offices, no lawmaker has agreed to sponsor a bill.
Directors of Photography Adam Beckman and Victor Tadashi Suarez
Video Editor David Herr
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Producer Lizzie Blenk
Associate Producer Brennan Cusack
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