The Latest Facebook Scam Uses Your “Friends”

Fraudsters use the social networking site to steal cash.

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If you get an email from a friend telling you that he’s been mugged and needs you to send cash immediately, you might want to give him a call first. Chances are, he’s safe at home and doesn’t need your help at all.

The latest scam to circulate on social networking sites works like this: Fraudsters hack into an unsuspecting Facebook user’s account and change his status update to read something like, “I’ve been robbed and need help now!” That person’s friends receive the alert by e-mail or by logging onto Facebook, and, as any good friend would, spring into action. They send cash or money orders to their “friend,” but in reality, they are sending the cash to scammers who steal it.

[See 5 Scams You Might Be Falling For]

“If a cry for help arrives from a friend, and his picture is next to it, it’s pretty easy to fall for,” says Bob Sullivan, author of Stop Getting Ripped Off. On his blog The Red Tape Chronicles, Sullivan describes how Bryan Rutberg of Seattle discovered his Facebook account had been hacked into and a message had been posted that he was in urgent need of help. His friends tried to help him; one sent $1,200 to the hackers.

Why do people believe such fraudsters? “Facebook friends enjoy a trust level that others do not,” Sullivan says. It’s also easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when you’re using social networking sites – the same sites you post baby pictures to, talk about your dinner plans on, and use to communicate with close friends. It’s easy to start to think of Facebook as the local coffee shop, full of familiar faces, instead of the anonymous website that it can sometimes be.

Facebook, which has gotten some bad press because of this and similar incidents, says users should use anti-virus and anti-phishing programs to help protect themselves, and to be skeptical of anyone who asks for money. Never send money, the company says, without verifying with your friend on the telephone first. Facebook also says that people should be savvy about their passwords, and not use the same one for multiple accounts.

The folks at Google are also on the case. The company recently launched a warning system that lets users know if the company detects any suspicious activity. If it seems like something fishy is going on, it posts a warning that alerts the user.

[See Fraud Protection: Debit Versus Credit Cards]

There’s also a lower tech way to alert your friends to potential trouble with your account. If you have any reason to believe that your account has been accessed, then send an email to your contact list explaining your concern. After my former high school teacher suspected he might be at risk for an attack, he sent out the following message: “Over the past several weeks, a couple of my friends have had their identities stolen… Since I travel a lot and since the [scammers] have my E-mail… it is not impossible that the same thing might happen to me. So, if you get such a request from me, ignore it. If I need money, I know who to call and will do it by phone.”

Have you been the victim of a Facebook scam? Share your experience and tips for others.