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Fake ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ accounts are scamming people out of cash

Facebook is battling to take down fake “Mark Zuckerberg” accounts that are being used to trick people into handing over their money.

According to The New York Times, the scammers have been contacting people via Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram, pretending to be Mark Zuckerberg, and telling them they’ve won a big cash prize on a “Facebook lottery.” Victims are told that to receive their prize-money they must first wire a “delivery fee” to “Facebook.” But after the first transfer has been made, additional ones are demanded in order for the prize to be sent. To be clear, there is no Facebook lottery, nor any prize money.

The deceit, as you’ll have already spotted, is a variation on the once-popular advance-fee email scam, where recipients are told they’ve won a lottery or come into money, and need to send cash in order to receive it.

Accounts have been set up in the name of a number of prominent figures, not just the Facebook CEO. The identity of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, for example, is also being used in the scam.

The Times highlights a number of cases where people have handed their savings over to the operators of the fake Facebook and Instagram accounts, many of which are reportedly based in Nigeria and Ghana.

A retired forklift truck driver and army veteran, for example, wired more than $1,000 to the scammer’s account after receiving a message from “Mark Zuckerberg” telling him he’d won $750,000 on a Facebook lottery. Another made several transactions totaling more than $5,000 before realizing it was a trick.

The news outlet said it found 205 accounts impersonating Zuckerberg and Sandberg across Facebook and Instagram, with a quarter of them lottery scams — some of which had apparently been on the site for up to eight years. After being notified by the Times, all bar one have now been taken down by the company. It’s worth noting that none of these were satire or fan pages, which are allowed on the sites.

Facebook said recently it blocks millions of fake accounts each day by using machine learning to track down suspicious behavior on its site. But considering the lottery scams alone, and how many have apparently avoided detection, the company’s A.I. technology clearly requires some improvements to get on top of the situation.

The lottery scams on Facebook and Instagram appear to be targeting vulnerable types, including “older, less educated, and low-income people,” the Times said.

It’s difficult to know just how many have been taken in by the scam, with some likely too embarrassed to report it to the authorities or Facebook itself.

The worrying part is that once the sham accounts are removed, they’re quickly replaced by others. The most effective way for Facebook to tackle the issue will be to improve its software aimed at identifying and removing such accounts, and to warn its billion-plus users that such scams exist on its platform.

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