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Social Media Scams: How Dangerous Is It to Add Random People?

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Social media scams are all too common. According to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), people reported in the first six months of 2020 losing a record high of $117 million to scams that began on social media. These scams can vary in type, but many of them start with sending an unsuspecting victim a simple “friend request” using a fake profile.

Accepting a social media request from someone you don’t know isn’t inherently dangerous, but it’s often the start of a scam. If you’re smart about how you use your social media accounts and stick to some basic privacy tips, you can avoid social media scams.

Types of social media scams

The Internet and social media have made our lives both easier and more dangerous. Social media platforms have unfortunately become a haven for scams, where fraudsters prey on users’ desires to make new “friends” or gain followers and how trusting users are of social networking sites.

The most common types of scams on social media are:

  • Online sellers that don’t deliver: When social media websites introduced ads, it seemed like a great way for advertisers to get closer to their target customers. But scammers have manipulated this feature and fake ads abound on Instagram and Facebook. Clicking the link on an ad might take you to a website that downloads malicious software onto your computer, or a fake e-shop that takes your credit card info and never ships what you order.
  • Romance scams: Unfortunately, creating a fake profile and starting a virtual relationship with someone over Facebook or Instagram to scam them out of money or financial info is common. This is one of the top reasons to avoid adding a random person on social media.
  • Fake financial help: Some people create fake accounts and send you a friend request or ask to follow you, offering some sort of grant or loan. This scam was common during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when many people were struggling economically. Scammers may also hack into your friends’ accounts and send you similar messages, asking for money. If you get a strange message on social media from someone you do know, contact them outside the site or app and ask them about it because they have likely been hacked.

What happens if you add random people on social media?

If someone you’ve never met or seen before requests to connect with you on social media, you might wonder: What’s the worst that could happen?

Maybe nothing happens, and this person just wants to boost their number of friends, or they want you to follow them back. It could be more nefarious than that. If your social profile is set so only accepted friends and followers can see your posts, accepting a random person lets a stranger see personal content. They’ll see who your friends and family are, important information about you like the town you live in or your birthday, and even photos of you.

All of these details are exactly what someone needs to pull off a scam.

Does it differ for LinkedIn?

LinkedIn is a professional networking site, so most people don’t use it the same way they use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You may keep all the content you post on LinkedIn strictly professional, where on Facebook you share details about your personal life. To make it simple: If you use a platform to share content related to your personal life that you don’t want just anyone to see, you probably shouldn’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know on that platform.

On LinkedIn, it’s more acceptable to accept connection requests from people you’ve never met — with the caveat that they have a reason for reaching out. A quick Google Image search on their profile photo can help you see if it’s legitimate. Also, make sure that they have linked their profile to at least one company page.

How to vet unknown profiles

If you get a request from an unknown person to be “friends” or follow you, you don’t have to delete it right away. You can use these tips to assess whether their account looks suspicious or not:

  • Do a Google search on their profile photo. You can easily search Google using an image. Searching for someone’s profile photo will show if it’s a stock photo or has multiple names attached to it, both of which indicate that the friend or connection request could be a scam. To search for an image on Google, go to the website with the picture you want to use. Right-click on the picture then select copy image address. Go to Google Images, click Search by image, then click paste image URL. Paste the URL you copied into the box then click Search by image.
  • Check the date they joined the network or created the profile. If their profile is very recent, it’s usually the sign of a scammer, spammer, or troll.
  • Look at how many friends, connections, or followers they have. If this number is very low or even zero, it’s likely this account is not genuine.

When in doubt, don’t add someone you don’t know. If it turns out to be someone you’ve met but don’t remember, and they are trying to reach out to you, they’ll find another way to contact you.

Change your privacy settings on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

If you don’t want to get requests from strangers on social media, you can beef up your privacy settings so your profile is harder to find.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn all allow you to set your profile to “private” so it can’t be seen unless someone is approved by you or friends with you. When all your information is public, scammers can use it to try to bait you.

On every platform, remove your home address and personal phone number. Or, make them only visible to you.

On Facebook, you can change a privacy setting to block requests from strangers. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the Account menu in the top right of your Facebook profile.
  2. Click through to Settings & Privacy > Settings > Privacy.
  3. Under the section How People Find and Contact You, go to Who can send you friend requests? And click Edit.
  4. Change the option from Everyone to Friends of friends.

This method isn’t completely foolproof. If one of your Facebook friends has already fallen victim to a scammer, that scammer will still be able to send you a request.

Facebook also lets you change your settings so your profile doesn’t show up in Google searches. Go to Settings > Privacy > Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your profile? > Edit. Click to check the box to Turn Off.

Is adding random people worth it?

After you learn the risks of adding unknown people on social media, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worthwhile adding them. In most cases, it’s better not to add a stranger on Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, or Instagram, but you don’t have to have a “no strangers” policy. Be cautious and take proactive measures to avoid getting scammed by increasing the privacy of your account.

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