The Haggler doesn’t spend a lot of time on Facebook. As a fictional construct, he has no friends, no family, no life and thus nothing to share. Also, the whole enterprise seems frivolous. You want him to “like” your vacation photos? Please. He seeks consumer justice. It’s full-time work.
That said, the Haggler has found Facebook useful when trying to contact people for this column. Recently, however, he learned that it would be wise to approach the social network with a touch of skepticism.
Q. My son, William Swenson, has an odd and recurring problem: People keep creating fake Facebook accounts in his name. Why this happens is a mystery to us both, though it is worth noting that William is a public figure. In 2013, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for service to his country in Afghanistan.
Normally, I use Facebook’s “report” feature, and the page is taken down. But recently I found a fake William Swenson Facebook account that I have reported to the company more than eight times. Each time, I hear back that the company believes that the account “doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” In the feedback feature I have posted text messages stating that the account contains numerous factual errors. It doesn’t help.
I’ve read a lot on the internet saying that it is nearly impossible to get the attention of anyone at Facebook. Would you care to give it a try?
CARL SWENSON, SEATTLE
A. So this is a weird one.
There are a lot of Facebook scams out there, as you, dear reader, may already know. Most commonly, a fraudster copies a Facebook account and then “friends” his or her contacts. You accept, thinking your friend has pressed a reset button of some sort. Then the messages start, which quickly become a request for cash. Hopefully you unfriend, and life goes on.
That is not what happened to William Swenson. He has never had a Facebook account.
It also seems unlikely that the fake accounts were built to embed ads that would then make pay-per-click fortunes. A member of Facebook’s spam team told the Haggler that it would take a huge number of clicks to generate meaningful sums. And once a “William Swenson” site started raking it in, the company’s filters would flag the account and shut it down.
Perplexed, the Haggler contacted Doug Pierce, one of the smartest people to trudge through the fetid bog that is the internet underworld, and the founder of Cogney, a search engine optimization company in Hong Kong. He had two words to share: romance scam. The scam has its own warning site — “dedicated to fighting Nigerian and Russian romance scammers” is its motto. The rip-off is a variation of the old advance-fee hustle, in which a con artist persuades a mark, via email, to send money, and then more money, for an investment scheme that will purportedly pay off in the future.
The romance version has the swindler contacting the victim through a dating site, pretending to fall in love, then asking the mark for money. The popularity, if that is the right word, of this flimflam is not known, but rummage around romancescam.com, which has page after page of examples and advice, and you get the sense that it is widespread. A fake Facebook account would help “prove” that the faux Romeo is real, with photographic evidence.
And this is perhaps what makes Mr. Swenson such an appealing figure to impersonate. He’s a real live hero, who displayed uncommon courage during a harrowing firefight with the Taliban in 2009. He’s also good looking.
This con man theory seemed speculative until the Haggler found photographs of Mr. Swenson on a part of romancescam.com where people combating this fraud trade notes. “Pictures stolen from former U.S. Army Captain Swenson,” it says near the top. Below that a contributor to the site states that he or she nabbed the images from someone with the Skype name “william awenson7.” As it happens, there is currently a Facebook account for someone named William Awenson that is studded with photos of Mr. Swenson. (The misspelling might explain why nobody, including the Swensons, had noticed this account before.)
On the same romancescam.com page, you can read a come-on by a person engaged in this act of seduction. “I’m a loving caring tender man and I always respect my woman,” wrote an ersatz wooer, beside photos of Mr. Swenson, in a snippet culled from a site called DateHookup. “I’m here looking for good honest kind woman.”
All that was left for the Haggler was a question for Facebook. The company deleted the resilient fake account that Carl Swenson had complained about as soon as the Haggler wrote to Facebook’s media relations office. That’s nice. But why did the company tell the elder Swenson, over and over, that the account met its community standards?
“As our team processes millions of reports each week, we occasionally make a mistake,” a Facebook spokeswoman wrote in an email. “That is what happened in this case.”
The team is vastly outnumbered by the complaints it is supposed to assess, and the result is human error. It can happen. And apparently it has already happened again. On Wednesday, the Haggler showed Carl Swenson the “William Awenson” Facebook account. He promptly used the “report” feature to request deletion of this blatant fake. You’d think that by now the guy has some credibility. Nope. He soon received a familiar note from Facebook, which stated that the account met its community standards.
Listen, Facebook. You’re now worth more than $300 billion. How about throwing a few bucks at your fraud-prevention team? Maybe adding more humans will cut down on the errors.
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