Michelle Singletary: Watch out for social media scams

Michelle Singletary
Columnist October 18, 2011

Your social media account on Twitter or Facebook may have connected you to a forgotten classmate or sweetheart, but it can also lead you straight into the hands of a predator.

All this Internet openness has made it much easier for people to be preyed upon by con artists who specialize in affinity fraud, using someone’s connection to certain groups to gain their trust and ultimately their life savings.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) recently warned investors to look out for shady investment deals pitched by people they connect with on social networking sites. State security regulators warn that con artists are using the information you post to make highly targeted pitches within your social group.

“We issued the warning because we had more and more people calling in saying they had lost money over the Internet,” said Jack E. Herstein, NASAA’s president.

For years, con artists have found victims through offline social networks such as faith-based, civic, community and professional groups. They join the groups and ingratiate themselves, making connections in person. This takes time and you have to come face-to-face with your victims.

Online fraudsters can target more people in less time and never have to travel. Last year, Maine’s security regulator issued a cease-and-desist order for an online investment scam operating on the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. The scam targeted people participating on chat sites popular within the deaf community.

However you get pitched an investment, here are some red flags to watch out for, according to NASAA:

●An investment that is supposedly low risk with a high return. Just remember: Risk and reward are equal partners. If the risk is low, the return is low. If the risk is high, the return is potentially high. If anyone is promising a low-risk investment with a return that is far above recent average returns, you are probably about to be scammed.

●Someone says he’s got an investment opportunity with foreign operations. Many people don’t even bother to check out an investment opportunity with stateside operations, so how can you really check out the legitimacy of a foreign operation? You usually can’t.

●If you’re being offered a bonus to sign friends up for an investment deal, use caution.

●Con artists will tell you to go to a Web site to get more information. But when you do, there’s little concrete information. This should be a gigantic red flag. My 11-year-old can create a Web site. Even if a site looks professional, click away from it if it offers little or no information about the company or details about the investment, NASAA says.

●If an investment promoter won’t give you written information, walk away from the deal. With a legitimate investment opportunity you’ll get a prospectus or other written information detailing the risks of the investment and procedures to get your money out.

Whether online or offline, if you take the following steps you can better protect yourself from an investment scam:

1. Make at least one telephone call. “A simple phone call to your state securities regulator will save you a lot of money and headaches down the road,” Herstein said. “Find out if the security and the person selling it is licensed in your state.” You can find your regulator at www.nasaa.org.

2. Adjust your privacy settings to limit publicly accessible personal information. It’s so much easier for sleazy promoters to comb through online profiles taking note of people’s personal interests, home towns, schools, likes and dislikes to lure victims into a scam, regulators say.

3. Search online for information about the investment being offered. If there are few results, or their name doesn’t appear anywhere outside of the one investment program they’re offering you, that’s a warning sign that they may be using multiple aliases, or hiding behind a fake identity, according to NASAA.

4. Don’t just trust a testimonial or go on the word of a friend. A recent national study of Ponzi schemes found that nearly one in four of the scams involve the use of affinity groups, which helped the con’s credibility. The most common affinity groups targeted were elderly, retired and religious groups, according to the study conducted by Marquet International, a security consulting firm. I once went to an investment seminar and when I kept questioning the promoter she got angry and said: “Would your friend introduce you to anything that is crazy?” Yes, if she didn’t do her due diligence.

Just keep in mind that by sharing small details of your life, you are making yourself more vulnerable.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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