We let them in: The online friendship scams

I've had a LinkedIn account for a good number of years now. I signed up when LinkedIn first started, wanting to connect with my fellow researchers. LinkedIn is a professional networking site, and it was a perfect place to build those connections, particularly with those who are overseas. But when I started my editorial business, I chose to shift the focus of my LinkedIn account towards my editorial ventures.

So, I went into LinkedIn, updated my profiles and decided to connect my LinkedIn profile to my business email.

A few days later, I got an email from someone who was commenting on how pretty I was. Those sorts of pickup lines are never going to work on me anyway, but I emailed back, asking if he had any editorial business that he was interested in contracting. The sleazy pickup emails continued, and eventually I had to block the dude's email.

But when this happened, the only question that went through my mind was "How did this guy get my email address in the first place?" The email that he was sending his sleazy pickup lines to wasn't listed on my website. I hadn't shared it with anyone because it was a brand-new email. The only place that had that email in a public setting of any description was LinkedIn.

And that's when I discovered that LinkedIn has a little flaw.

By default, your contact details are visible to those you don't interact with (but not public).

On LinkedIn, by default, your contact details are available to your network. That might seem innocent until you discover what a network is.

According to the LinkedIn website, a network is up to 3 degrees of freedom from your connections.

Let's say you have five connections. (In practice, people on LinkedIn have hundreds of connections, but five helps to make the math easier.) And let's say each of your five connections has five connections. That's 25 people. But let's say each of those connections has five connections. That's 625 people who have access to your private contact details by default. Knowing that people on LinkedIn have hundreds of connections, that's a lot of people who have access to your email by default.

I would've never have known about this particular flaw if it hadn't had been for the scammer who sent me those cheesy pickup emails.

So, when I discovered that my business email with publicly visible through the LinkedIn website, I had a decision to make: keep the setting as is, or turn my account to private.

Today, LinkedIn is the only social media that I have that is still connected to my business email address. I know the danger that exists, so I can make an informed decision accordingly.

But these love/friendship emails and scams are common. And it seems like every other day I get another one sent via social media.

What the friendship scam looks like

The email that I got all those years ago was full of flattery, telling me how pretty I was. That's how they start. They are preying on those they feel might the lonely souls. They are looking for those who might be feeling down on themselves. The scammers might comment on your smile. Or maybe they go one step further and they comment on the photos that you share. No matter what, they are trying to break down whatever tough exterior you might have and get under your skin… so you trust them.

Instagram is filled with scammers that use the friendship scam. They often send a direct message, trying to strike up a conversation. Some of them that have come my way have contained only one word: Hi.

Whenever I see these, I'm a little torn. I'm trying to actively build a platform, trying to gain a following. But I can't trust that these are going to be people who are legit. So I tend to ignore them.

If you look at their profiles, they tend to be photos of ex-military, active military, solo dads, recently retired, and widowed gentlemen in their 40s looking for a partner for life.

Take your pick. They're all bogus.

You can turn your accounts to private... if you want.

On Instagram particularly, you can turn your account to a private account to stop getting the direct messages from these people, if that's what you want to do. But for a writer like myself, having a private account on Instagram kind-of defeats the purpose.

Recently, Facebook added the ability to specify who can send you direct messages via the Instagram platform. If you want to, you can turn that off, so you won't get the direct messages at all. However, I have elected to not do this.

Because I'm an editor, and because of how people sometimes find me for editorial contracts, I still allow direct messages to my public accounts—but communications about work are very quickly moved to email and off of social media, so I can maintain a record of communications for legal purposes.

I am blessed in the fact that all of my social media except Facebook is 100% author/writer/editor. Like LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Mastodon were also set up for professional reasons. On these platforms, all happily accept friend requests and general communications from pretty much anyone. It's about networking. But when those friendship scams come knocking… It's called "block".

Facebook is the abnormality within my platform, but Facebook also has other features that I use, such as the public author page—which somewhere along the line became a profile of its own, thank you, Facebook, and their recent changes.

But here are some general rules that I follow when trying to decide whether I'll entertain that conversation that seems to have come out of nowhere.

My rules for engaging in private conversations on the internet

1) In the initial communication, is there any indication as to where I might know that person from? How did the conversation start?

Sometimes, the conversation starts with an interaction in a writing group or the like. If I recognized the name and the profile image from the Facebook group, or whatever group I was in at the time, then all good. I'll happily respond, and off I go.

Sometimes, the communication comes from another lead, but normally the initial message includes something that explains how the person heard about me or how I might know them. I met them at a conference. Or maybe a writing friend suggested that they reach out to me. Or maybe they were doing a Google search and my name came up as somebody who might be able to help them with their writing.

There are a lot of different reasons why someone might want to contact me. The point is there is normally a reason mentioned.

If I'm the one initializing the conversation, which I have been known to do, I always include how I first interacted with that person in any direct message or email communication. Even when sending cold emails to people, you will always find a reason for why the communication is happening.

2) On social media, is the account involved a private account?

On Instagram, if the communication is coming from a private account, I tend to just ignore it—unless it has met the criteria from point 1. I don't want to spend my time interacting with someone who has a private account, without a good reason to be doing so, knowing that I can't see anything else that might be going on in their online interactions. I have the same policy on Twitter.

Facebook is an abnormality, but remember Facebook did not start for me as 100% professional, so I do have personal and family interactions on Facebook too.

3) Are the Spidey senses going off?

This is a bit harder to explain, but I have a natural instinct about people. I can tell when someone is going to be problematic. I can tell when someone is going to be a bit shady. And I can tell when someone is being honest but just doesn't understand the technology.

This is not something that I can easily show you how to develop. It's about understanding human nature and the way people commonly behave given a certain set of circumstances.

Let's just say that I have never been wrong about someone's underlining motivations in their interactions. This instinct has saved my life more times than I care to count, so I just trust it.

Protect yourself and family online

It's interesting how all of these things seem to be basic concepts. Yet, so many people (and not just women) fall prey every day to the online friendship scams. If you don't believe me, just boot up Netflix and bring up the documentary series on the Tinder Swindler, or the series Inventing Anna, or any other series that is about the underhanded deeds of con artists.

Con artists are "good" at spotting the trusting souls that they can take advantage of. And it's because of our innate trusting nature that we don't want to think ill of people—so we let the con artist con us.

But we could have stopped the con in its tracks by taking a few simple steps to protect ourselves—particularly when the con starts with a swarmy email or message about how pretty we are.

I get on average 1 new friendship scam a day. How often do you see these swarming scammers? Or are you one of the lucky ones that hasn't been blessed by the swarmy souls?

Copyright © 2021 Judy L Mohr. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared on judylmohr.com

Posted in We Let Them In and tagged , , , .

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