Online predators turn to Facebook

Monday, October 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:16 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 26, 2009

COLUMBIA — One morning last summer, Emily Mayhan, 20, woke up and discovered her Facebook account had been hijacked. She could no longer access the social networking site or her e-mail account.

The perpetrator had changed all her passwords. She was shut out.

Tips to protect against a scam

 The FBI listed several tips to help Internet users avoid scams:

  • Adjust Web site privacy settings. Some networking sites have provided useful options to assist in adjusting settings to help protect your identity.
  • Be selective when adding friends. Once added, contacts can access any information marked as viewable by all friends.
  • Limit access to your profile to only those contacts you trust with your personal information.
  • Disable options, such as photo sharing, that you might not regularly use. You can always enable these options later.
  • Be careful what you click on. Just because someone posts a link or video to his/her wall does not mean it is safe.
  • Familiarize yourself with the security and privacy settings and learn how to report a compromised account.
  • Each social networking site may have different procedures on how to handle a hijacked or infected account; therefore, you may want to reference its help or FAQ page for instructions.

Source: FBI press release, "No, Your Social Networking 'Friend' Isn't Really in Trouble Overseas," dated Oct. 1

The imposter then contacted several of her Facebook friends and told them Mayhan was stranded on the streets of London, in urgent need of cash.

“I had heard things about it in the news, but I never thought it would happen to me," Mayhan said. "Facebook wasn’t one of the sites where I would expect it to happen.”

Her friends didn't bite but Mayhan, an MU business student, was told to alter her online passwords and put a hold on her credit cards.

Online hoaxes or "phishing" attacks are major problems in the online universe today, according to the FBI. They are used to steal someone's identity or financial information.

A recent development involves social network impostors. In these scams, the fraud claims the victim is facing dire circumstances and asks friends to send money. The impostor then makes off with the money.

The Internet Crime Complaint Center , a partnership with the FBI, stated a record high in 2008 with 275,284 total complaints filed, a 33.1 percent increase over the previous year. The total dollar loss linked to online fraud was $265 million, about $25 million more than in 2007.

The center makes it easy to file a complaint with federal authorities but victims of internet scams can find the problem difficult to report on social networking sites.

Mayhan said she spent hours trying to find a way on Facebook to report the hack. Several days later, she received an e-mail from Facebook security that they had closed her account because of suspicion of foul play. No legal action was ever taken, and she still has no idea who hacked into her account.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, MU’s IT Department will host a workshop at Memorial Union on Internet safety and social networking.

“It is something that more people should be aware of,” said Kristina White, a system security analyst who will lead the workshop. “It is a great way to keep in touch with people but you have to be really careful about what you’re putting out there and who you’re contacting.”

The criminals are taking advantage of the intimate social relationships on these sites, she said. They prey on the emotional ties users have with their friends.

“They’re turning to it because of that trust factor,” White said. "If a friend of yours sends you something, you’re going to assume it is your friend and not someone who is pretending to be that person.”

The largest problem for those trying to curb these online attacks is locating the perpetrator and pressing charges. As with most Internet scams, “it is truly difficult to pinpoint where the person is physically,” White said.

The problem of identity theft through social networking sites first came to national attention in January when MSNBC reported a story about a man named Bryan Rutberg whose account had been hijacked. His corrupted status read: "Bryan is in urgent need of help!!!"

Mayhan said she had no idea such a crime was so easy to commit until it happened to them.

“You can’t really stop the big crime itself,” Mayhan said. “It just happens.”

For more information on Internet safety, attend a discussion on social networking, given by the MU Division of IT at 2 p.m. Tuesday in S206 Memorial Union.


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