Catphishing on the Rise

In the last week I’ve had three separate Facebook friends re-friend me using new accounts. A few months ago I even had a cousin re-friend me “after Facebook sent him a million dollars and he could finally afford to create a new account!” His words, not mine. He was, of course, not actually my cousin but an impostor trying to get me to click through a third party link to infect my computer. It was kinda cute. 🙂

Clients have reported that online friends they’ve known for years are now re-friending them and asking for money to bail them out of strange situations — everything from jail to “beta testing” to solar investment loans. In all cases, contacting the person directly with their (previously known) offline contact methods (phone, text, IRL) results in first surprise, then horror, as the person realizes what has been done in their name.

And that’s the real issue here. It’s not like you’re witnessing your friends falling for a scam from an anonymous Nigerian Prince. No, they’re friending you and you (in their mind) are responsible for anything that happens to them. From that moment forward, even long after they learn it was not really you, they’ll always associate you with this event. Some won’t talk to you anymore out of embarrassment. Some will blame you as though there were some way you could have prevented their folly. In any case, you’re both harmed by a total stranger using your name.

This phenomena is called catphishing: The process of creating a fake online persona based on someone else and using it to take advantage of the target’s friends. Impersonation through, quite literally, duplicity.

Here’s the problem

She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked.

She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked.

Online service providers, such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and so on, don’t exactly perform DNA testing to ensure that the guy claiming to be your neighbor really is your neighbor. If they did, nobody would use their services. Since they don’t, it’s up to you to be able to identify whether it really is your neighbor.

They don’t make it easy.

These intelligent scammers will use just about any means possible to replicate the identity of the person they’re posing as. They’ll re-use the same or similar image as their personal photo. They might crop it differently than the original that they’ve harvested from the real person’s page, but it’ll be “real”. They’ll also migrate some content, mostly copied directly from the original account, onto the new catphishing page. They’ll also copy personal details, such as dates, employment or social history, possibly even replicating the victim’s relationships with additional accounts. All it really takes, when the information is already available only a click away, is the time to copy and paste.

These types of phishing accounts are usually short-lived. Within only a few days they’ll be identified by the targets friends as a phish, though in that time dozens or even hundreds of people may be victimized. This means the attacker will have to act fast. Once they’ve created the account they’ll quickly send out many friend requests to the targets existing friends. They’ll then add or contact many, and the few that answer quickly will then be social engineered.

First a little small talk, then mentioning some great event – like being mailed a million dollars by Mark Zuckerberg, or how they just saved a bunch of money by doing something different like taking advantage of a government program or loan gimmick. They won’t waste much time getting to the pitch, though they might not be able to respond to everyone all at once so it might be a day or two before they push. When you feign interest they’ll have a link at the ready to help you “research” their pitch. It might even be a personal page on a popular site or a typo-squatted version of a popular domain. They’ll seed the idea then send you a link to infect yourself or enable you to self-hijack by posting your account information at an untrustworthy site.

While you’re giving up your information, your real friend is completely oblivious to what is happening.

So how do you protect yourself?

First and foremost, don’t just friend everyone that asks. A very effective means of security (in most things) is to let other people be the guinea pig. This means you don’t respond to friend requests or new contacts immediately. Just wait. At least a couple days, but a week or more is ideal. By this time, there’s a good chance other people would have suffered at their hands if it’s a phish, and thus the account may have either been locked or shut down by the time you are prepared to accept the friend request. Patience really is it’s own reward.

Of course, if you suspect an account isn’t legitimate, report it. Most popular websites have tools to report various contacts and requests, and these are the tools you should be using. This allows the website owner (such as Facebook) to aggregate information about these attacks to block specific types of attacks or shut down entire networks of attackers all at once, and possibly prevent some of them in the future. It’s up to you to report it properly and fully, however. Simply blocking a user will not have any effect other than eliminating their unwelcome messages to you. If you want to stop it you have to be specific in how you report it.

On Facebook you can go to the fake user account page, click the account action button (…), select Report, Report this profile, then select “They’re pretending to be me or someone I know.” Then follow the prompts.

fb-report fb-report-profilefp-report-catphish

Don’t forget to tell the person they’re claiming to be, preferably through a previously known offline contact method.

What if they’re posing as me?!

Same thing. Report them quickly and warn your friends that may have succumbed to your fake friendship.

But wait, there’s more! In most states there are laws against phishing. Here in California the law is really written only to protect businesses, but you, as a victim, can sue an impostor for a half million dollars if they pose as your business.

It doesn’t hurt to regularly search social media for your own name, too. Not your account, mind you, just your name. This will return other accounts that are using your name so you can investigate them. Even a few minutes of effort once a month can save you and your friends from a lot of hurt down the road.

Another trick is to add a Google Alert to your name for social media. This bypasses your own social account (if configured correctly) and emails you whenever your name appears on a site. First go to Google Advanced Search and fill out the form to use a search phrase such as this:

“john t example” -“johntexample”

This searches for his exact name, on Facebook, but excludes his Facebook slug/username. Now go to the Google Alerts page and search for the formula you composed above. “Show options” then set the alert to contact you once per day. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might catch a phish.

Good luck, and keep it clean out there,

Shawn K. Hall

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