It’s a minefield out there on social media, and the spammers, bots and trolls are continually laying down new mines in new locations that are liable to explode on you if you aren’t careful.
Lately, I’ve been getting a lot more bogus friend requests on Facebook. When I started out, I used to accept most requests that came my way, but lately, I’ve been getting an increasing number of suspicious or outright phony invitations.
So, I’ve learned to become more discriminating (in the positive sense of the word). These days, I reject close to half of the friend requests I receive.
It’s nothing personal, it pays to be but as I’m getting closer to 3,000 friends, and I’m sure not all of them are trolls. But it’s hard to keep track of so many people on a Facebook feed. As an author, I want to connect with readers and potential readers, but I don’t want my feed to be dominated by faces I wouldn’t recognize if I bumped into them at the local grocery store or names that look like random excerpts from a phonebook.
In identifying unwanted friend requests, I’ve noticed a few patterns, tipoffs, and things I’d just rather avoid. It’s not a foolproof filter, but it does cut down on the headaches of curating my social media presence.
- Check the profile picture. A lot of people like to put their best face forward online, using glamour shots, 20-year-old photos, soft lenses and the like to enhance how they appear. That’s one thing. But if the profile shot depicts a woman with stunning looks and a lot of cleavage or a bare-chested man who’d look at home on the cover of a romance novel, that should send up some red flags.
- Look at other photos on the profile (if there are any) to be sure they match each other and the profile pic. It’s not uncommon for spammers to sub out the photo of one attractive woman for another as their profile shot.
- Are you already friends with the person? A common hack is to duplicate someone’s profile and send out requests to people who are already friends of the original (legitimate) profile. The new profile typically clones the original’s picture, but beyond that, it’s often just a bare-bones copy. If you have a lot of friends, or the person doesn’t appear often on their feed, it’s easy to forget you’re already connected. Even more confusing: Some users have legitimate backup profiles, and others may be creating a new one because they’ve lost access to the original. If you see a face that looks familiar, search your friends list to see whether you’re already connected. If you are, study the new profile and shoot a message to the old one to find out what’s up.
- Is there a banner? A lot of bogus profiles are slapped together quickly with just the basics. Oftentimes, the user won’t bother to put up a banner. Maybe they’re just in a hurry, or maybe this is just the latest in a series of profiles that have been reported to Facebook as spam and removed. Fake profile creators often take shortcuts because they can’t afford to put too much time into a profile that’s likely to be taken down in a matter of days or even hours. Does a profile look sparse or slapped together quickly? Does it lack biographical information, interests, group memberships, check-ins and reviews? If so, that should raise a concern.
- What do the person’s friends look like? If it’s a woman whose friend are all male, for instance, the chances are much higher that it’s a spambot. You’ll also learn to recognize which of your own friends routinely approve these users, because they’ll appear again and again on the false profiles’ friend lists. Spammers make use of the “friends in common” feature to target users who only allow requests from “friends of friends.” I’ve gone so far as unfriending real people who accept too many requests from bogus profile users, because I don’t want such users sending requests to me.
- Look at the person’s timeline. If you see “lonely girl” invitations to hook up or visit a risqué website, hightail it out of there pronto. This is not a real profile. (This should be obvious, but the fact that spammers keep using this tactic indicates it must fool at least some of the people some of the time.) In the absence of such a clear red flag, check out the posts. Has the content been composed or merely copied? Are they in a language you can understand? This one’s tricky, because some very real people do have friends from around the world and write posts in more than one language. But if all the posts are in a language I don’t speak, there isn’t much basis for communication, even if the profile is legit.
- Is the gender consistent? Maybe the profile pic shows a woman, but the name is a man’s. Also, check the “about” section. Does a woman’s profile refer to “places he’s lived”? If so, there’s good reason to be suspicious.
- Two first names? That’s one too many. Yes, some people really do have two first names (Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar, Shannon Elizabeth ...), but if you come across a profile that’s questionable in other ways, it’s not unusual to find names like Sheila Renee or Heather Holly on a scam profile.
- Is it a new profile? Not all new profiles are bad. Every Facebook user was new to the platform at some point. But the fact is that something like one-quarter of the planet is already on Facebook, so there are fewer people left to join. The chances are therefore higher, just mathematically speaking, that new users aren’t legitimate.
- Is the profile all about asking for something? The requests can take many forms. The most blatant is the aforementioned romantic come-ons (usually links to pay-for-porn sites). But there are also variations on the common Nigeria scams, promising more money at some later date in exchange for wiring financial “help” now. Some profiles aren’t fake, but they exist almost exclusively to promote a product. If most or all of the posts on a profile are ads, or if the user name is that of a company, I’m not interested.
I’m sure there are more telltale signs of bogus profiles, some of which may target women more frequently than men. If you know of any, feel free to leave them in the comments field. And as they used to say on Hill Street Blues, be careful out there.