Twitter struggles to keep up with spammers

November 24, 2018

OPINION by PATRICK BLACKBURN

It has been two years since the United States held a presidential election that was likely influenced by reams of misinformation that dominated the news feeds in every Americans’ Facebook and Twitter accounts. Since then, leaders at these two companies, and others, have struggled to assure their users that what happened in 2016 will never happen again.

Twitter, under pressure from Congress, investors, and customers, has started to purge fake accounts from their database. In May 2018, Twitter challenged nearly 10 million accounts that their systems identified as “spammy” or automated (accounts set up by bots). Katy Perry lost about 861,000 during a recent purge, and Twitter’s own account lost nearly 2.4 million followers.

Recent incidents show how difficult Twitter’s task is to locate and remove fake users. Even when presented with proof of a fake user’s account, one that is actively trying to steal money from unsuspecting users, it appears that their internal policies aren’t effective enough for them to take appropriate and timely action.

Twitter receives about 17,000 spam reports a day (May 2018). While that number seems extraordinarily high, it is down from a 25,000 report a day average only two months earlier. According to Twitter, this drop “means people are encountering less spam in their timeline, search, and across the Twitter product.”

That may be the case; but there are other possible reasons for this drop in reports. A recent incident I experienced resulted in a filing of a report that was supported with proof that a scammer was behind the account. A quick reply from Twitter stated that the account was fine, and no action would be taken. This type of inaction could discourage Twitter users from reporting the incidents and simply blocking the offenders.

Case in point:

Earlier this month, Monica, an attractive blue-eyed blonde, followed me on Twitter and sent me the first of two weeks of direct messages:

“Hi.”

It took only a few minutes of chatting to convince me that I was likely communicating with a scammer, but I told a friend I was going to play it out. “There’s either a really cute girl I’ll be able to play with, or it’s a scammer that you and I will be able to play with.” I figured the odds were high that a request for a Western Union wire was imminent.

The clues were subtle at first: a few too many “sirs,” and awkward sentence structures that sounded nothing like what most American 23-year-old women sound like. Her English wasn’t terrible, though, like some of the ridiculous emails that clog our inboxes with promises of “you make US $100M due to the fact of a death of a relative I represent for you, kind sir.” After a few days of trying to break down my resistance with compliments and promises of good times ahead, she tossed me the bait:

“I’ve been running around seeking for a loan from friends and family. I want to restock my store and I need some money to buy goods. I need $1,000 and I will pay you back in December.”

There are a lot of scams out there. This one is a cross between what is commonly called a relationship scam and a 419 scam (or advance-fee fraud). The 419 comes from the section of Nigerian law that criminalizes the practice. The bad guys (it’s almost always a male, even when they are playing the role of a female. Women, however, don’t escape the targets. Scammers will just as easily play the role of a single man looking for lonely women) pretend to be interested in you, sometimes saying that they will be traveling to/moving to your city soon. They compliment you, and sometimes go as far as saying that they are in love with you and hope to marry you soon.

Once someone you don’t know personally asks for money, it’s almost always a scam. Their reason for needing the money doesn’t matter: you should cut off all contact with the person and report them to the security department of the site you are using. If you gave the scammer any money at all, or any personal information like a phone number or address, you should also call your local law enforcement and file a report. Do not let embarrassment keep you from filing. This is a common scam, and some can be quite convincing. It’s never your fault, and many smart people get fooled. I am extremely social media savvy and can weed out attempted scams almost immediately. Yet when I review my early discussion with this scammer, it’s evident that I wasn’t certain who I was dealing with. A part of me wanted her to be real.

Once the request for money came, all doubt was gone. While turning the tables on a scammer can be risky if they have any of your personal information, and this person knew my first name and the city I live in, I decided to move forward. She had several hundred followers, had been active for more than a year, so it wasn’t a stretch to think that people were actively giving her money. I figured the more time she wasted with me was less time she had available to steal money from people who truly believed she was a cute, young blonde who really did want stay the night the next time she was in town.

Some people have said that it’s not nice to turn the tables on scammers, that they are usually poor people desperate for money to support their family. This is almost never the case. According to the website 419eater.com, a site dedicated to exposing these scams and its scammers: “for the most part these criminals are not, ‘poor people trying to scratch a living’, but are indeed very prosperous compared to their law-abiding countrymen, and many operate in highly organized, and highly successful criminal gangs. Millions of dollars are stolen on a DAILY basis, with absolutely no thought given to victims, who are losing vast amounts of money, homes, relatives, jobs and worse.”

Playing around with scammers is called “baiting,” and 419eater.com has a section on baiting safely. The number one rule is to not give them any personal information. In this case, my scammer already had some real information, but I decided to play anyway. I strongly recommend if anyone reading this decides to get involved with one of their scammers, they should thoroughly review the information at 419eater.com and not follow the path I did.

I created an elaborate story of my own to return the favor. I was a wealthy businessman, and I involved a (real) friend of mine who played my money manager. We both hit on Monica, separately, and when she showed interest in my friend, I pretended to get jealous and cancelled the fake transfer we sent her. I then fired my money manager for hitting on her, because I can’t have my money guy hitting on my love interests. We piled on the ridiculousness by having my manager steal $3 million from my Cayman Island bank account in retaliation. We even created a phony wire transfer to offer as proof. He offered Monica 10% of the take to run away with him, but she wouldn’t bite. Instead, poor Monica only wanted her $1,000, and she even offered to help me set up my old friend so I could catch him and get my money back. Of course, she was only willing to help if I would reverse the cancellation and wire her the $1,000 she desperately needed for cosmetics.

Since Monica was not about to provide me a bank account number, she used the service that seems to be the favorite of scammers: Western Union. She gave me the fake name along with an address of an apartment complex in Dallas (no apartment number), and asked me to make the transfer multiple times times. The longer it took for me to respond, the more urgent and creative her requests became.

Scammers only need the Western Union transaction number, called an MTCN, to acquire the cash. Officially, an ID is required, but criminals can get around this requirement quite easily. Some will have a fake ID at the ready, others likely are known in the country of origin’s office, and it’s possible that IDs aren’t even requested. Even though the recipient address, in my case, was in Dallas, Western Union doesn’t require that person to be anywhere near Texas to receive their funds, nor does it seem that they care. As long as the scammer has the MTCN,  they will get the cash. And since orders cannot be cancelled once sent, there is no way to stop the process or, in most cases, get your money back.

Eventually my friend and I grew tired of the scheme, and we let her know that we were scamming her and there never was any money. I offered her an opinion as to what I thought of her life choices, and she replied with a few choice four-letter words, and then she blocked me.

And somehow, this is where things got weird.

My friend and I both reported this user’s account to Twitter, and provided screen shots proving the scam. We anticipated a swift response and cancellation of the scammers account. Considering the pressure Twitter is under after what seems to be their complicity with Russian troll farms creating thousands of bogus accounts to influence American voters, how could they not, right?

Instead, my friend received a rapid response from Twitter via email that read, in part, “We reviewed your report carefully and found that there was no violation of Twitter’s rules regarding abusive behavior.” Incredulous, my friend responded with even more proof—screen shots of her requests for money and a link to the real person’s account for comparison. Within minutes, Twitter replied: “We have reviewed your report again, taking into consideration the information you provided, and determined that there was no violation of the Twitter Rules.”

On my part, I reported the issue separately, and after I didn’t hear anything for a couple of hours, I sent a tweet to @twitter and @twittersupport. After still hearing nothing, I tweeted Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, and their corporate counsel, Vijaya Gadde, twice and again received no response.

Finally, I contacted Twitter’s press department, this time stating my interest in writing a story about it and that I was representing Cal Coast News. I submitted a lists of questions that I was hoping to get answered for this story. Instead, I was told that they had (finally) closed the scammer’s account, and I was referred to a blog post about the efforts they have been taking in their battle about scammers. It was nice to see the account suspended, but it seems like Twitter still has work to do. It shouldn’t take someone to file three reports, send six tweets (two to the CEO), and finally write a story about it and contact their press department to get an account closed.

Almost immediately after Monica’s account was closed, another pretty young woman, going by “Vivian,” started liking some of my tweets. She even commented on my tweet to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking why Monica’s account hadn’t been closed. Vivian’s reply, “She sounds like a piece of sh*t,” made me realize that Monica and Vivian were likely the same person. I took her profile pic and put it through TinEye, a web-based image search engine that will allow you to have a photo searched to see where it came from. In this case, Vivian’s profile pic was on several adult sites.

I sent this information to my new press contact at Twitter, and she replied, “…the account you flagged and several others have been suspended.”

This exemplifies the challenge Twitter faces. It’s a bit like a game of whack-a-mole. Suspend an account, and a new one pops up almost immediately. I’m sure my Monica is already back in business with a new account, a new profile pic stolen from somewhere on the web, and is trying to extort money from new and unsuspecting victims.

I bet she won’t be contacting me again.

 


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Ted R

Dating online is a slippery slope… Meet your mates at church.


nazbol gang

This is the most sensible comment so far


what the

What the!?!


IronHub

Well written and informative. What this illustrates is that both Twitter and Facebook are technological Frankensteins that likely cannot be controlled, so must eventually be stalked with pitchforks and torches and destroyed. Both are a scammer’s wet dream.


nazbol gang

I’m on my 5th ban from Twitter™. The silicon valley elite / the so called progressives / democrat party etc are desperately trying to hold onto the political narrative, but they are slowly losing control as the internet allows people easily communicate with each other. I think they will try to gain power again but this time with much more censorship on social media platforms. They probably blame free communication for their loss in 2016. But they can’t keep the lid on ideas that threaten their power anymore. People are waking up and realizing all the problems the post war liberal world order has created.


It’s ironic that the internet was originally created to control all the nuclear silos around the country in the fight against communism, and now the internet is nuking intellectual property and the old post WW2 political order.


ml1999

I believe you are mistaken about the Presidential election. Studies revealed Russia had a small number of Facebook and other sites post on **both sides** of the political isle.


In reality, the media is horribly biased in one direction, and our FBI and DOJ conspired with HRC to fabricate a dirty dossier to take out several potential GOP candidates. Incredibly, even the UK and Australia got in on the election manipulation. These are proven manipulations, not fantasy.


I’d love to see a follow up article on overt bias at Google, Twitter, YouTube and Fakebook. They are manipulating the public. One study by a Democrat professor found that Google buried negative stories about HRC, and highlighted negative Trump stories.


They are gaming our elections.


pmb

ml1999 – thanks for responding. While I could see us getting off-topic really quickly, I’d like to respond, since you are referring to my first paragraph. I’d be interested in seeing the studies you mentioned that Russia had a “small number of Facebook and other sites posts…” Facebook has admitted to identifying 80,000 posts by Russian agents (mostly from the Internet Research Agency in Moscow) that were seen 126 million times (from likes and shares). Twitter has said that Russian-controlled accounts had tweeted more than 531,000 times into 2017. While the actual impact that this trolling actually had on the elections is still unclear, the scope of their involvement is not.


I’d also like to remind you that the dossier you referenced was originally commissioned by the GOP, an inconvenient fact that seems to be forgotten (or ignored) these days. And I haven’t seen anything that categorically disproves even a single item that is contained in the dossier. I will also concede that most of the details contained in it have not been proven correct yet, either. I think the FBI/DOJ connection is a conspiracy theory that doesn’t really have legs.


Where I do agree with you is that I also believe that social media companies are manipulating the public, as well as trashing what little privacy we have left.


pi-on

“I’d also like to remind you that the dossier you referenced was originally commissioned by the GOP, an inconvenient fact that seems to be forgotten (or ignored) these days.”


Incorrect. The dossier was originally commissioned by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online publication and the Hillary Clinton campaign who both wanted opposition research on Donald Trump.


Buzzfeed is currently in litigation regarding this document and CNN removed it from their site explaining that they were unable to verify the claims in the document.


pmb

I think we’re kind of splitting hairs at this point. I was being overly general, and you are correct, the Free Beacon was the first to commission the report. However, your sentence makes it seem like they commissioned it at the same time. They did not. The Free Beacon hired Fusion GPS sometime in late 2015. The contract switched to the DNC in the spring of 2016 when the project was abandoned by the Free Beacon, as it was evident by then that Trump was going to lock up the nomination. And remember, it doesn’t really matter who commissioned it. Both parties paid good money for accurate/true info that they could use. They didn’t pay for him to make up some really good stuff.


And your comment is right about CNN being unable to verify the claims in the document, but so is mine. None of the claims have been proven false yet, either. And they may never be.


My opinion: most (or all) of the dossier is true. But it is only an opinion, which is based on my 30 years of studying Russia. I majored in political science at UCLA with an emphasis in US-Russia relations, and continue to study the fascinating country today. Steele is reputable, regardless of what people who want him discredited say.


According to a bio of Steele in New Yorker magazine, “…One Orbis client who agreed to talk to me, a Western businessman with interests in Russia and Ukraine, described Steele to me as “very efficient, very professional, and very credible.” He said that his company had successfully cross-checked Steele’s research with other people, adding, “I don’t know anyone who’s been critical of his work. His reports are very good. It’s an absolute no-brainer that he’s just a political target. They’re trying to shoot the messenger.”


That’s one opinion and his reputation alone doesn’t make everything in the dossier true. Maybe time will tell if any of it pans out, maybe it won’t. I for one won’t be screaming from the rooftops that it’s all true, because like the rest of the world, I simply don’t know. But where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. And there’s enough smoke to wipe out a small country.