How I Almost Got Mugged on Facebook

ImageI owe my mother an apology.

I've chided her over the years for forwarding e-mails warning of the dire consequences of downloading unsolicited attachments from strangers, and suchlike frauds and menaces. Some of these caveats were inspired by hoaxes, while others, I complained, assumed people were too stupid to know an obvious danger or falsehood when it was staring them in the face. My often pat replies moved her to preface subsequent circulars with "I've looked this up on Snopes and it's real!"

But I recently got up close and personal with an online scammer — and nearly got taken. So: Sorry, Ma; the next time I get all high and mighty, please remind me of the following story.

The entreaty came on Facebook via instant message. It's not a tool I use very often, though I'll occasionally see a timid "hi" from one of my nephews pop onscreen. This message, however, seemed to be from W, a cousin on the East Coast.

"Did you get my e-mail?" it began. I confided that I hadn't. Next came a horrific tale: She and her family had been mugged! At gunpoint! In London! I didn't know they were in London, but I'm not very up-to-date on this cousin's life. I responded with dismay and as compassionate a string of sentiments as I could type.

Well, it seemed W and family had lost everything: money, passports, even their phones. The only way to reach her was on Facebook. Could I help them book their flight home? Naturally they'd pay us back as soon as they arrived in the U.S. I instantly began drafting an e-mail to my immediate family (Mom included), explaining this traumatic occurrence and entreating their help.

I then got back into the IM stream and explained to "W" that I would mobilize the family's assistance. The reply surprised me: Could I please send an "advance" they could put down on their tickets?

It was late in the game, but I finally realized something hinky was going on. I'd responded with pure emotion to the initial message, and the rational part of my brain had taken a nap; thus I didn't think to ask such elementary questions as "If Cousin W is able to use Facebook, why not put the news in her status update for all to see, thus radically increasing the odds of getting help right away?" Or "Why would she use Facebook to contact me rather than simply making a collect call to my parents, with whom she communicates more regularly?" I quickly Googled "mugged in London Facebook scam" and came upon a Sky News article, Facebook Scam: "I've Been Mugged In London."

I'd responded with pure emotion to the initial message, and the rational part of my brain had taken a nap.

Just to make sure this was fraudulent, I ventured: "Is your sister Anita OK, after that thing with her leg?" (W's sister is not named Anita and has no leg issues that I know of.) "Doing much better," came the reply, after which my correspondent attempted to steer our discourse back to the wire transfer. "You're busted," I wrote, and quickly posted a note on Cousin W's Facebook wall warning that her account had been hacked. This was just as rapidly deleted, and I was summarily blocked from posting.

When I finally heard from the real Cousin W, she said she had "about a zillion people to calm down." No word yet on whether anyone actually gave the impostor money.

I did leave out one detail: I sent the link to the article I'd found to the scammer. At first I thought I shouldn't, that it would be better if he or she thought no one suspected. And perhaps this cool customer already knew the con was coming to light. But since it was highly unlikely that INTERPOL would sweep in to make an arrest, perhaps sending the link would at least make the trickster think it was unsafe to practice this particular trick any further on this particular day, with this particular crowd.

I imagine you're wondering why I decided to tell this story in our newsletter, other than to publicly apologize to my mom. It occurred to me that the perpetrator of this unsavory deception is, in a sense, doing what business newsletters and LinkedIn groups are always talking about: making novel use of social media to boost revenue. What's more, the villain in question was couching a powerful emotional appeal in down-to-earth language — causing someone who advocates this very approach as a critical plank of any branding platform to drop his defenses, turn off his reasoning mind and scramble to drum up some cash.

In this instance, however, it was sleazy, manipulative and dishonest, designed to exploit fear in order to bilk people out of their hard-earned dough. So, too, is a lot of "legitimate" business (and politics and entertainment). For better or worse, this bit of techno-flummery is the bastard child of the crazy, hyper-connected, instantaneous market culture we've all had a hand in creating.

Which inspires this child to say: Ma, thanks for looking out for me.