Facebook’s fake friends epidemic

Do you have beautiful strangers in your friends list? Odds are they aren't who they say they are.

A few weeks ago I got a Facebook friend request from a cute young blonde thing named Marjorie. I did not know Marjorie from Adam, but she was certainly enthusiastic about friending me. She even initiated a chat session before I had a chance to respond.

In fact, she continues to chat me periodically at random, even though we are not officially “friends.” When I asked why, she says she just “wants 2 b yr frnd.”

[ See also Wanted: Privacy policies written for human beings ]

There was something strangely familiar about Marjorie, and it took me a couple of days to figure it out. Her profile photo – the only one on her page – was of country star Taylor Swift. (On closer inspection, one can see the MTV Awards logo behind her. Duh.)

[img_assist|nid=178255|title=Do you know this woman? No, it is not Taylor Swift. Sorry.|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=597|height=336]

Naturally, I Googled Marjorie, who sports a common Filipino surname. I got a fistful of nothing; every link to her was via Facebook. She’s like The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager; beyond Planet Zuckerberg, Marjorie does not appear to exist in corporeal form.

A fake friend epidemic appears to be sweeping across Facebook, though with only 30 friends Marjorie is one of the less aggressive offenders. Blogads blogger Henry Copeland details the case of one “Nicole Bally,” who managed to befriend some 697 people, including the hoi polloi of the InterWebs: Sean Parker, Arianna Huffington, Chad Hurley, Henry Blodget, Jimmy Wales, Seth Godin, and Amanda Congdon among them.

It seems no one, male or female, can resist a pretty stranger.

Nicole Bally’s profile photo was actually of fitness queen Nicole Carroll. His/her actual identity, and why he/she created the profile, is a mystery that will likely never be resolved, because Facebook nuked “her” account after Copeland reported her.

Blogger and former TV newsman Ike Pigott spent altogether far too much time trying to track down the identity behind one of his fake friends, a cute-as-a-button alleged mother of three named Cindy Robertson. Using reverse-image-search site TinEye, for example, Pigott determined that photos of Cindy’s adorable family were all stock images downloaded from the Web.

Still, identifying fakes isn’t always easy. Pigott’s solution: When friended by apparent strangers, he quarantines them in a list called “UnTrust” and limits their access to his friends list and anything he posts.

Why do people go to such effort to create fakes? The only logical explanation I can see is for use in social engineering and/or spear phishing. Scammers gather information, determine a likely target, then use personal details culled from Facebook to either gain someone’s trust or impersonate someone else they know. In Pigott’s case, he assumes it was someone trolling for high-value real estate leads. In other cases, the outcome of fake friending could be more sinister.

One of the reasons this problem has become epidemic is Facebook itself. Its overly aggressive “People you may know” feature aids and abets this kind of malfeasance by automatically suggesting new friends. So to get access to you, all a scammer needs is one of your friends to take the bait.

You can’t stop Facebook from showing you friend suggestions (or if you can, I’d like to know how). But you can keep your own face from showing up as a friend suggestion to strangers, and keep your friends from showing up to them too. As usual, it requires wading into Facebook’s Privacy Settings, going to the section at the top labeled “Connecting on Facebook,” and clicking “View Settings.”

[img_assist|nid=178257|title=Make yourself a smaller target for Facebook scammers|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=592|height=330]

From there you can pick who is allowed to search for you on Facebook (ie, Everyone, Friends of Friends, or Friends only), who can send you friend requests, see your friends list, or chat you out of the blue while pretending to be a country music dolly (though not Dolly).

My advice: If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to purge your Facebook posse of faux friends – before they start hitting you up for money or insinuating themselves into your life in other unpleasant ways.

Some of ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan’s best Facebook friends are fake. The rest just wish they were. Visit his eHumor site eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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