How I nearly got scammed on Facebook

A cautionary tale that may save you a few hundred--or a few thousand--dollars next time you get a message pleading for help.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

You may remember the now-famous New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner depicting a couple of canines in front of a computer with one telling the other that "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Talk about prescience. And that was in 1993, long before most Internet flim-flammers began running their con games on the rest of us.

So there I was browsing through my e-mail while sucking down the first coffee of the morning yesterday, when I came across a distress message from an old industry contact. We had just reconnected on Facebook. For reasons that will soon become apparent, I'm changing her name in this account to Jane. The message read:

I'm writing this with tears in my eyes, my family and I came down here to North Wales, United Kingdom for a short vacation. Unfortunately,we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we stayed,all cash and credit card were stolen off us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us.

We've been to the Embassy and the Police here but they're not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in few hours from now but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills. Well I really need your financially assistance. Please, let me know if you can help us out?

Am freaked out at the moment!!"

Now, I'm used to Internet scams where notes arrive in my e-mail in-box, supposedly from people in dire straits pleading urgently for help. And true to my Queens-Brooklyn upbringing, I'm no sucker for sob stories. My first reaction usually is something along the lines of "fuggedaboutit."

But that knee-jerk skepticism got tested after I logged onto Facebook and saw Jane was online as well.

"Hey, how are you doing?" I wrote.

"Not good," she replied immediately.

That led to a back-and-forth where "Jane" again sketched out her dilemma and repeated her plea requesting financial help to the tune of $1,900-plus (via Western Union.)

Related links
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That's where I became suspicious. Back in the day, when she was running point for her company's communications campaigns, I found Jane to be as sharp as a tack. One could never picture her as this helpless naif, sobbing in confusion about her next step. Besides, why would she send out a mass e-mail rather than try and figure out an answer on her own? I also knew Jane could buy and sell the likes of me at least 1,000 times over, so why not just call Goldman Sachs--or wherever she's parked her trust fund--and have them send a limo and a change of clothes, pronto?

Then again, you never really know. Maybe she was indeed in a bad jam and I was the right person at the right time. Besides, I'm a sucker for the idea of coming to a damsel's distress. Plus, this wasn't a bogus Sanii Abacha scam mail; she was actually conducting a live chat from Jane's legitimate Facebook account. She had to be on the level.

Or not.

The only thing I was sure about was my confusion. So I began fishing to see if I could learn more about who really was on the other end of the line. It didn't take very long.

"Where do I know you from?" I wrote.

"OMG, you must be kidding."

Then, radio silence for what seemed to be several minutes.

I played another card.

"Wait, aren't you the Jane that I knew from Apple?" I asked.

"Yes, that's me," Jane said.

Busted. Jane never worked for Apple and that was all I needed. But before logging off, I gave the impostor a self-righteous dressing down. Probably not a terrific idea since he/she could see my info, but it felt good all the same. A postscript from the real Jane, who is doing just fine, thank you.

"Several of my friends from Stanford alerted me to this scam earlier today--and then my niece got caught in a chat with "fake Jane" like you did and gave me a call," she e-mailed me. "So I've changed all passwords and upped my Facebook security. Let's see if that helps. It is frightening that someone could break into my account--and I'm not sure I feel confident that it won't happen again."

"I think it's a great cautionary tale--and if the person on the other end of the chat had "guessed right" on the questions that you and my niece posed, it might have seemed pretty darn authentic. My niece happened to ask why I was in Wales, and my fake-self answered that I was traveling with "the family," which would no way be an answer I'd give! But...I see how easy it could be for someone to say just enough to make folks think it really was me. Very scary, this Internet thingie! ; )

And so we're left with this lingering ambiguity. But that's just the reality of our times. And until some technology bright bulb figures out an answer, there's not much we can do but use our heads and heed the advice Reagan used to offer Gorbachev: trust but verify.

This story originally appeared on CBSNews.com.