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Fake celebrities flood social to scam via Twitter and Facebook, how to tell

If someone claiming to be a celebrity messages you on social media, don’t take the bait. There’s a reasonable chance you’re about to be scammed.

The first time a celebrity likes a social media message of yours, you might be instantly excited. All of a sudden, you’ve been highlighted out of the blue by an individual well and truly out of your social circle.

The next time, they might send you a message. It could be something as simple as “hi” and “how are you”, but if you’re just a regular anyone, it might be enough to put you on cloud nine, almost like you’ve become one of the chosen, selected to talk to someone famous. How exciting!

Of course, it’s also entirely possible that you’ll get sucked into a black hole of fake celebrities jumping onto social to scam you out of money.

When an Australian comedian started messaging me without any prior context, I knew something was up. Turns out there are a lot of somethings going on out there, and all for scammers to make money by ripping off others.

It started with a message

I knew something was wrong when an Australian comedian I followed started messaging me. You mightn’t know the name, but if you watched ABC’s 7.30 and used to check out the comedic skits of Clarke & Dawe, you’d know the name.

The duo was responsible for some of the finest Australian political comedy in the 90s and 00s, and produced a fantastic little mockumentary about Sydney’s Olympic organisation committee ahead of the 2000 Olympic Games, aptly named The Games.

I’m a fan, so when Bryan Dawe — of the Clarke & Dawe duo — started messaging me from his Twitter account with no prior context, I had a sneaky suspicion that something was wrong.

I immediately turned to my wife and said “wait, what?”

The wife of a technology journalist, she immediately said exactly what I was thinking: “just wait until they ask you for money”.

It’s the obvious response: the moment anyone online starts talking to you, if there’s a chance to ask for money, they will.

It didn’t take long.

The beginnings of a charity scam. A charity is a good reason to donate money, but scammers are using it to take money.

Draw you in then let it loose

Wait long enough and the message will come out, and lo-behold, that’s exactly what happened with fake Bryan. I’ll call this scammer “fake Bryan”, because that’s exactly what he and other fraudulent celebrity accounts are: fake.

The real Bryan Dawe shut down his social accounts amidst a battle with Facebook over a different scam, and it appears this new fake Bryan has just decided to pick up the slack, all without anyone realising.

Twitter doesn’t seem to care, and neither does Facebook, with reports to each over this fraudulent account being ignored. Yes, we tried.

Converse with fake Bryan long enough and he’ll send you a message about a charity you can donate to purportedly linked to First Nations which is a scam itself. Worse, it appears plenty of people have fallen for it, confusing fake Bryan’s fake charity with the real charity named the same.

We can only assume fake Bryan is talking to lots of people, and convincing them to hand over money, making this a lucrative scam.

The first and second pictures come from the fake Bryan Dawe trying to get you to donate to a scam charity under the name of a real charity. The real charity’s PayPal is the third image.

Celebrity skin

Unfortunately, these types of scams have become the norm, and while they can deliver different final goals for the scammer, they all have something in common: they start out as someone pretends to be someone else.

That may well be a hallmark of the internet — where anyone can be anyone — but it’s one that social media is more or less allowing these days.

With the removal of a verification status on Twitter and Meta’s own security appearing to do very little to dissuade the criminal, let alone shut down their account, it’s up to good citizens to recognise the traits of a scam and hope they don’t fall into the abyss, because there sure are a lot of celebrity scams these days.

“I think they’re on the increase,” said Tyler McGee, Head of Sales for McAfee in the Asia Pacific Region. “What we’re seeing is they’re getting more eleborate,” he said telling Pickr that scammers are using the guise of celebrities in a multitude of ways, including fake charities, fake product endorsements, fake investments, and even convincing social followers to help send out materials in exchange for money and then stealing from those people themselves.

In that last one, fraudulent profiles for celebrities are created and followers promised cash when they help send out materials to build up the profile. When it’s done, they may expect some money, but what they’ll get is the exact opposite.

“You never get paid, but they start to sell your bank details on the dark web,” said McGee.

A long drawn out scam

Falling for different scams can be all too easy, and part of the dilemma stems from the way a celebrity talks.

I’m talking to one scammer now as I write this piece, and it’s evident to me that they are definitely a scammer, because I’ve actually spoken to this celebrity in real-life. I know how they speak and the mannerisms they use, and they certainly do not speak like what this scammer is trying. Not at all.

But for scammers playing these celebrity games, they’re banking on the knowledge that their victims won’t, and they may even be using technology to help get these little details past you.

You don’t know how Brad Pitt talks publicly, but chances are if he slowly starts liking your tweets, and then a month or two later starts messaging, you might forgive the odd way he writes and believe every single word you’re sent. And that’s entirely the point.

Text makes everything easier, and helps that you don’t have to audibly listen to the words as a scammer purports to be the real deal, but there’s still a pattern and cadence to the way the fake celebrity talks versus the clearly real one.

Look out for this pattern and you’ll be able to easily poke holes in anyone talking to you under the guise of false pretence.

It could be made much worse in the future, with artificial intelligence helping to make this text that much more like the real deal, and even to deliver the text in realistic audio and video just like the celebrity.

“With AI, the fact that you can now clone voices [and] you can do deep fake video, you can take it to another step beyond that,” said McGee, adding you could “receive a call form someone pretending to be a celebrity”.

Bitcoin and donations and always money

Pretending to be a celebrity tends to have a specific goal: money. Specifically your money.

If you’ve ever asked yourself why a celebrity would possibly need your money, the answer is cybercriminals are cunning enough to have thought of that angle, too. Instead, they’ll employ approaches they either pull at the heart strings for charitable donations, or encourage the age-old tactic of more greed.

When a fake celebrity started speaking to this journalist about investments, and linking their experience back to more celebrities and known figures in the media, referencing the word “bitcoin”, and encouraging us to talk to their friend “Mr Lawrence”, it wasn’t difficult to see that this scam was asking you to call a scammer directly.

It’s a little like the fake PayPal invoice scams we’ve seen of late, where you get a fraudulent invoice suggesting you’re being charged for a substantial sum, and the only way to get it stopped is to call a number. Rather than have a scammer cold call you — and have you know instantly that it’s fake — the scammers are asking you to call them. You will have taken the action then, and the scam is just that much more believable.

This fake celebrity was doing the same thing: introducing us to another player who we would get in contact with, engage in a business relationship with, and when it went belly up, we’d inevitably be left to our own devices.

It’s a clear scam to us, but it won’t be to everyone.

You’re on your own

And unfortunately, the web’s security teams aren’t likely to be helping you one bit with this type of scam.

While we’ve reported several of these, reports tend to be ignored and very little comes as a result of it.

Twitter even inadvertently suggests the playbook for scammers to operate by, noting that if the username you want is taken, adding “underscores before or after your desired username will help you claim a unique username”. That’s what this fake celebrity did, for sure, cloning out real person’s name and reusing the social media of the real one to make their account seem that much more legitimate.

It’s not the only approach, but it’s definitely one we’re seeing employed, and without an actual verification status in social systems, it’s one that scammers are all too happy to take advantage of.

As it is, Twitter’s paid Blue Tick status could just give scammers another way to fake being the real deal, and making it more difficult to decipher who is legit and who is anything else. A scammer could pay for a Blue Tick while the real user didn’t, which would give money back to Twitter and confuse the issue, convincing people that the fake celebrity was the authentic one in the process. It would be chaos.

Frustratingly, social media services just don’t appear to be interested in clearing things up.

We don’t doubt that there are those behind the scenes struggling with the same concerns we have, thanks in part to hundreds if not thousands of criminals attempting these scams regularly, making life difficult for anyone attempting to police things.

Still, you’re on your own. Everyone is on their own.

How to stay on guard against fake celebrity scams

With social media’s security essentially ignoring reports and refusing to take action, regular online netizens are largely left to their own devices, almost literally.

“I think when it comes to scams as they get more elaborate, it’s getting harder to detect,” said McGee, though he did says there are still telltale signs.

“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” he said. “When they’re asking for money or donations to charity, meet and greet for musicians or celebrity, it’s a sure sign.

“If you’re on social media and you get a DM from someone. Think about it: if they’ve never DM’d you for real, if they’re asking for a gift card or debit card [and] if there’s a sense of urgency, they’re asking you to move quickly,” said McGee.

Use that common sense part of your brain and ask yourself if this is legit. Scammers will typically employ tactics like urgency to force you to act without thinking, and push and prod to keep you there.

Try pushing back and asking for more proof, and seeing what will happen. Ask them for something that you may know exists, or even that you know doesn’t exist, and see if they have the ability to respond. They might just see you as too problematic, and block you for trying to see if they’re legit.

In short, the next time you bring your phone back from standby, if a celebrity is waiting for you with a like or even a message, take it with a grain of salt.

It could well be the beginning of something long, dark, and winding down into an abyss of manipulation. It’s probably fake.

Was it something I said?

Finally, report that scam ASAP

Once you’ve worked out a message is fake, take the action of reporting it to the ACCC via Scamwatch.

Australia is lucky enough to have an organisation reporting scams and scam losses, so if you’re worried that a scammer might just ensnare someone else, report what you’re seeing to Scamwatch.

And if you’ve been caught, definitely report that to help make sure other people don’t get caught in it, as well.

“If people get scammed, sometimes they have this perception they don’t want people to know it. They’re embarrassed,” said McGee.

“Last year there were over a thousand reports of celebrity endorsement scams,” he said. “Out of those, the victims who did report it, most were scammed over 10,000 dollars.”

That’s big business for a scammer, and why they don’t stop. And McGee noted that while older generations could see the biggest losses, younger users afraid to report from embarrassment have seen smaller losses still, often to as little as $200. However, if you add up those smaller losses and multiply them over time, it’s still big business for scammers around the world.

Reporting scams helps warn othersReporting scams helps warn others what’s going on, and potentially put a stop to them as they grow in number.

“They have to report them. More people need to do it,” he said.


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