Our view: Congressman is right – fake profiles are a real problem

Spend long enough on social media and you’ll encounter a fake account, someone pretending to be another person. Sometimes this is played for laughs, such as when people pose as real sports reporters trying to convince others of a blockbuster trade or free-agent signing. Other times, the goal is to trick people into establishing connections with someone they think they know, which can provide a hacker access to passwords and address books and perhaps financial information.

When U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger recently wrote to Facebook overlord Mark Zuckerberg, he talked about a related strain of false pretenses: swindlers who impersonate members of the military (clearly playing on the positive associations many have with men and women in uniform) in order to lure people into false relationships as the first step toward draining bank accounts.

“As a combat veteran currently serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, I am particularly concerned with the pernicious efforts to impersonate current or former military personnel to gain the trust of unsuspecting users and ultimately convince them to transfer money,” Kinzinger, R-Channahon, wrote in the July 31 letter, which The New York Times published last week.

Kinzinger spoke from personal experience, citing the sad story of a woman from India who spent all her money to fly to Rockford in 2015 to meet Kinzinger at a constituent office inside a bus station, all because she believed she’d been communicating with the congressman online.

He said dozens of women contacted him or his staff and claimed they were in a relationship with him. A second woman from India said she sent one imposter about $10,000.

“My staff and I find various accounts posing as me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Hangouts or other platforms,” Kinzinger wrote. “We are able to report these fraudulent accounts quickly, all things considered, but that may not be the case for others – many unsuspecting victims would not even think to search for their image on Google or other social media platforms as my staff does routinely.”

We agree with Kinzinger’s assertion that Facebook and other social networks need to do more to protect their users, both the people whose identities are spoofed and the unsuspecting victims who don’t realize the person on the other end is not who they claim. Each of those victim classes loses something so long as this type of fraud continues to flourish.

Virtually every social media platform is free for the average user because the companies need consistent visitor traffic in order to attract advertisers.

That makes regular people the product Facebook and those similar to it sell to others. It’s inexcusable for any social media company to come up short of doing everything possible to protect users from fraud.

Zuckerberg already testified before Congress in April 2018, and Kinzinger gave him until Aug. 14 to respond to the most recent letter.

Kinzinger also discussed the possibility of federal legislation that could force tech companies into taking actions they clearly should have pursued in their own best interests years ago.

These problems have existed nearly as long as the social media platforms themselves, and so it’s clear intervention is necessary to effect lasting change. What isn’t clear is what tools Congress might have in its arsenal and how willing it is to intervene.

In the meantime, we urge all users to be cautious.

Just because you see a familiar name and photo doesn’t mean that’s really your college classmate or old neighbor trying to make a modern connection. And be especially wary of people who approach you online for any sort of money, just as you would a stranger knocking on the front door or calling the home phone.

We thank Kinzinger for sharing his personal experiences and hope others with his type of influence feel comfortable doing the same.

By naming this problem, and especially by offering practical solutions, there might be a chance for actual improvements in the world of social media. But until that happens, be smart – and careful.