Not-so-cute scam preys on social media users’ sense of compassion

Scammers will often post a picture of a dog captioning it with something like, “Found this sweet little guy running on the highway, please share to help me find his family.” It’s what happens once you share the post that puts your friends and followers at risk. (Baxter, the sweet dog pictured here, is not lost, stolen, or injured). Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

If you love animals, you have probably been the target of an online scam and you may not even realize it.

You’re scrolling through Facebook, and an adorable doggy picture catches your eye. You decide that you have got to learn more about this fluffy earth-angel, and you read on. OMG! The poor sweetie has been found injured at the side of the road by a good samaritan who is trying to find the little guy’s family. You hit “share” immediately, so that you know you’ve done everything you can to help the pupper.

But hold on. 

The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) are warning social media users that sharing certain kinds of attention-grabbing posts puts their friends and followers at risk of falling victim to a scam.

On your daily news feed, you likely come upon a number of gut-wrenching posts about injured or lost pets, or missing or sick children. Acting Sergeant Erin Cranton, OPP Media Coordinator for the Eastern Region of the province, said that Canadian anti-fraud experts agree that fraudsters use these kinds of posts to manipulate your sense of compassion. Scammers seek to “appeal to everybody’s sense of goodwill and caring … by posting either missing [or] lost children, or missing or injured animals,” said Cranton. 

Many of us feel motivated to help when we’re presented with a post that tugs on our heartstrings, so we might share the post on our own feed for our friends and followers to see. However, after a period of time, the person who made the original can edit that post, completely changing the content. Explained Cranton, “Once those posts are shared a certain number of times and they’re kind of circulating around the internet, then the fraudster actually changes the original post down the line and adds a fraudulent link, ad, or survey, etc.”

Once that happens, Cranton said, “The post has nothing to do with a missing child or dog, but because it’s been shared by so many people, and people that are on your own social media accounts that you trust… then people get curious about what that post is about and further share or further click on the links. That’s where things like malware, or viruses, or different gathering of information happen.”

These bait-and-switch posts aim to either get a cash deposit from your friends, or gather personal information from them which could lead to identity theft, or introduce malware — and all because your friend saw a post that you shared.

This scheme has many variations, but the commonality is the emotion or urgency of the message that encourages concerned people to share the news with their friends. 

The BBB has seen multiple variations of these shared on local buy-and-sell Facebook groups across Canada and the United States. USA Today also reported about it in October. According to the BBB, these posts are often shared in local buy-and-sell groups because there is already a sense of community and trust within these crowds, and admins and members may not realize that scammers are targeting their group. From there, the posts may get sent out to other groups and personal accounts. 

Further, scammers will often also turn comments off on their posts so other group members can’t warn the group that it is a fake post. 

How to avoid participating in the scam?

“These days, I think a big part of it is the education. I think there’s still very little understanding of what’s happening. Even I had to reach out [to experts] to inquire a little bit about it,” said Cranton, noting she is pleased to see media attention on the matter so that the public can be educated about social media safety and best practices.

“I always say, if it’s not coming from a reputable source, don’t trust it,” she relayed, giving the example that reputable missing person posts will be posted by the OPP or another police force. Missing animals and found animals are often shared by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), the Humane Society, or another reputable animal rescue organization.

Be wary, advised Cranton: “Making sure that we practice good online safety… it’s applicable to every generation,  just simply really be cautious about the link you’re clicking on and what you’re sharing.”

“Looking at a person’s profile is a really good way of determining if the person is very new to Facebook, for example. Do they have followers and friends? Do they have other posts?” she continued, noting that finding out these things is easily done by clicking on the original poster’s profile picture.

“And then just the other piece… pay attention to your feed. Those people who share a lot might not notice that this post has been changed because it’s going to be so far down their feed. So, just check in with what you’ve shared and pay attention to what’s being posted.” 

The BBB offers these tips to avoid being scammed by a bait-and-switch social media post:

  • Do a bit of digging before resharing a post on your profile. Read the information carefully and look at the profile of the person who created and shared the original post. If the profile is from Florida but shared the post in a Canadian group, it may be a red flag of a bait-and-switch publication.
  • Find out when the poster created the Facebook profile. Scammers always create profiles when their old one gets banned. If you click on their profile, it will tell you how long they have been a member of the group. You can also find additional information on their public profile.
  • You should see it in the news. If a child goes missing or a tragedy occurs, you’ll most likely see it on different news outlets or shared by law enforcement, not on a random post. 
  • Do a reverse image search on Google. That will allow you to find out if the pictures you saw were used on other ads or websites in different cities. 
  • Copy and paste the text from the post into Facebook’s search tool to see if other posts with the same text and different pictures show up.
  • If you suspect a post is a scam, report it to Facebook.

“And then, absolutely, if [people are] seeing this type of post or they feel like they’ve fallen victim to it, reach out to the OPP,” Cranton encouraged. “The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre is another good place because the center does a really good job of tracking fraud and seeing what’s happening in our communities.”

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