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There Be Monsters

Jim Wasserman

I’VE BEEN AWAY FROM the HumbleDollar community for a while. Jiab and I are working on a new book about media literacy, examining the effects of social media influencers on youth consumerism. It will teach kids about responsible web use and how to avoid the traps of the online world.

I’ve learned a lot myself, including lessons that apply both online and IRL, short for “in real life.” As part of our research, one of the seedier, more adult corners of the internet I’ve explored is the scam solicitations that come to just about every user of social media. All platforms have their cyber-pirates hunting for vulnerable prey. Let me recount my encounters on Instagram as representative of the type.

Most scammers begin with an innocuous hello and some questions about my location and job. I usually say I’m in Atlanta—rather than my real Texas home—just to obscure the trail a bit. The profiles almost always seem to show photos of provocative young women. A Google image search shows that the same pictures are used in a variety of accounts.

After the intros comes the flattery. When asked for a pic, I send one of a famous actor about my age. This often elicits, “You’re so hot, I want to party with you.” Then comes the pitch, such as asking for gas money so she can come to my house. Some tell me they’re multi-millionaires who want to share their good fortune by giving me money.

As a teacher, I’m both amused and a bit irked that these scammers don’t do better homework preparation:

  • A woman in Los Angeles told me she could drive to my Atlanta home “in just a couple of hours” if I spotted her gas money.
  • A Phoenix woman confirmed that she saw September’s surprise snowfall there, telling me it was beautiful. The surprise is it hasn’t snowed there in decades.
  • When I told one inquirer that I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, she enthusiastically said she was nearby in Batumi—a city located in the Republic of Georgia.

All this is amusing until you consider that people really are taken in by these scams. The Federal Trade Commission said consumers reported $770 million in social-media-originated fraud losses to the agency in 2021. Bear in mind that’s what was reported. The FTC estimates that only about 5% of fraud victims report the matter to a government agency, often because of embarrassment. Scammers succeed because they know our three vulnerabilities:

We let emotion get ahead of rational thought. Scammers try to catch people in a weak moment. Most people won’t respond to flattery or attention out of the blue. But it’s a numbers game. Somewhere out there are lonely people for whom kind words and compliments make them lower their guard. Some victims have been lured into sending intimate pictures and videos later used to blackmail them.

Desperation and worry over debts can silence our brain’s warnings that the “can’t-lose” money opportunity is a trap. An online “financial advisor” lists tips for when you’re behind on the rent. Several include playing online games that “pay” you—but also encourage you to pay them to increase your odds of winning.

Many online brokerage firms are nothing more than investment platforms controlled by scammers. A victim’s account seems to show positive earnings at first, but that’s just to get the victim to increase his or her investment before it’s all pulled out. Other times, goods privately sold online go undelivered. It remains a rule that if a deal appears too good to be true, it probably is.

We forget that information is the key that opens the vaults. I have been told that I’m owed money or that a generous person wants to give me some. I just need to share my PayPal, Venmo or other electronic payment information so the deposit can be made.

People who have done so find themselves locked out of their account or with money withdrawn. Sometimes there’s not much gone, so the account holder doesn’t notice, but small sums are subtracted regularly.

A fake lottery winner sent me “her” information sheet to fill out, so she could share some of her newfound wealth with me. The form was clearly copied from the internet, still bearing the Publishers Clearing House watermark. Had I sent it in, my identity and all my account information would have been in the hands of a scammer.

We can be tricked into lowering our guard. Clicking links sent to us by people we don’t know—and even people we do—is like going down a dark alley. A phishing link or SMiShing text can open up your computer to being attacked by malware, your data stolen or your computer held for ransom.

Beware of emails purportedly from major companies such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook. Real companies never directly email you to ask for your account information. Upon examination, you may notice a slight misspelling or other problems with the sending email address that’ll be a clue it’s not from the actual company.

These scams use the same sales techniques employed in real life—by door-to-door salesmen or phone solicitors—just adapted for the internet. Scammers gain false trust, get marks to lower their guard and then take advantage. Online may be a new world to many. But as explorers warned long ago on the maps they created, here there be monsters.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach elementary, middle and high school students about behavioral economics and media literacy. He’s also authored several educational children’s books. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. They have a book that examines the impact of social media influencers on youth consumerism and identity development coming out in 2023. Check out Jim’s earlier articles.

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