Quick Tips: Networking Sites and Con Men

April 23, 2009

Accused Craig's List Killer Philip Markoff is the latest and maybe worst example of what can go wrong in the internet community. With the rise in popularity among networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and now Twitter, what should we watch out for? And are there special cautions for younger network surfers?

1. There's no denying that network sites are growing communities on the web. What's the popularity?

Part of the fascination is that the technology behind these sites is largely married to the devices that are popular now. Practically everyone has a cell phone, but instant messaging platforms and easy texting are common functions for most of those devices, and sites like Twitter work very easily with them. Plus, participation is free, so it's easy for anyone to join in.

2. Young people, especially, seem to participate in these sites. Why is that a problem?

Younger people embrace the technology more easily and maybe have more time to spend on networking sites, but as savvy as they are about the technology, they can be easy targets for con men. It’s important to remind kids and young adults that it's fine to play around with these sites and make all the online friends they want, but they should never share personal data with anyone through these sites. That means anything from a phone number to an address, but no one should share credit card or other banking information. Twitter is the newest popular site like this, and it specializes in brief blurbs, but it's possible that a con man may redirect viewers to a website or other account that could do damage.

3. Isn't someone monitoring these sites?

Government agencies will get involved when there's a suspected scam or something more serious like pornography or other unsavory practices, but the sites depend largely on users to report bad behavior. The trouble with most scams is that the victims don't know they're being taken until it's too late, and by then the faceless operator will have moved on, creating a new identity on the network. Most of these sites have some sort of security, but a determined con man can find ways around it – sometimes, that’s as simple as registering a new user name with a different e-mail address and password. That’s not hard to do. The fact of the matter is that most law enforcement agencies that would ordinarily prosecute major offenders are limited by the medium, and if they had the time to hunt down the bad guys – which most agencies don’t, except for the worst offenders – they might find that the user/con man is outside the country…and outside their jurisdiction. And by then, it’s too late for the potentially high numbers of victims of a scam. Be your own best, first protection. Unless you know the users in the real world and are using these sites as a communication tool or to share photos, you can't depend on whoever is contacting you to be the real deal. Don't share personal data.