As part of a special investigation into the new scam, SBS Spanish received an overwhelming response from Latin Americans saying they had been targeted.
People from Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Honduras, among other Latin American countries, all reported having their social media identities “cloned”.
Those affected by this latest scam as well as experts sharing tips on how people can avoid being targeted spoke to SBS Spanish.
The scam is all the more painful for Latin American people because social media is such an important way for them to keep in contact with their loved ones overseas, share images and tell personal stories.
But this relatively innocent way of disclosing personal data is putting many people in a serious bind.
- Criminals copy social media profiles of Latin Americans in Australia: they use their photos and personal information to contact loved ones and deceive them, taking money from them.
- Scammers pose as officials of airlines such as Avianca or Aeromexico and request money from people to solve problems with an alleged shipment of merchandise or flights.
- Experts say it’s best to avoid having public information on networks, especially family and friendship ties, so that criminals have fewer tools with which to commit fraud.
This “cloning” or impersonation of profiles on social networks is a type of scam that is increasingly targeting people from Latin American countries living in Australia.
Firstly, criminals create a fake profile that looks identical to a person’s original profile.
To do this, they collect all possible information from social networks such as Facebook (for example, photographs, videos, personal data) that give credibility to the false profile, and thus they are able to impersonate the person successfully.
A Colombian victim of the scam, César*, said the fraudsters had not only used his photographs and job and company details in the “cloned” profile but had also copied over his videos.
It is understood that the more credible the profile, the more likely scammers are to achieve their aim: to write to family and friends from the “cloned” profile and earn their trust.
Then, through deception, such as telling them that they needed to pay for a shipment of merchandise, recover lost suitcases or purchase a plane ticket urgently, money can be extracted from victims.
Cybersecurity expert Yago Jesus identified the Spanish-speaking community in Australia as a popular target of these types of scammers.
It is assumed that Latin American people living in Australia have limited means through which to stay in touch with their friends and family back home therefore rely heavily on social media accounts.
Mr Jesus said once the scammer had the trust of family members back in Latin America, he or she asked for their personal data (for example, address, mobile phone, email) and told them that they would be contacted directly from the shipping company or airline.
Scammers tend to use the name of recognised companies, such as Fedex, Avianca or Aeromexico and can even send victims fake proof of the transaction.
An “official” then contacted the victim by telephone, Mr Jesus said.
SBS Spanish recorded one such conversation with one of the scammers, unaware he was being taped.
“I realise that the gentleman’s shipment is a ‘premium’ shipment, worth a high amount and valued at 70 million Colombian pesos in premier merchandise such as laptops, iPhone phones of the latest range, watches, perfumery, clothing, among other things, OK?” says the false airline official.
“The reason for my call is to indicate that the shipment is overweight by 10 kilograms from the Colombian country. This results in a fine of $270 that must be paid by a Western Union or Money Grant, and that must be directed to the main branch of the airline.”
The scammer then asked for the payment of the money and, for the victim’s “peace of mind”, said goodbye and formally identified himself at the end of the call.
“Remember that you spoke with Juan Sánchez, advisor of Avianca Cargo Internacional, module 4, window 14. Have a happy day,” the scammer concluded.
In other circumstances, a family member becomes convinced of the urgency of a situation and begins the process of consigning money immediately.
Scammers pressure people to send the requested amount, under the threat that if they don’t, the shipment will be returned or seized by authorities.
In César’s case, he said he suddenly got a WhatsApp message purporting to be from his sister saying “…hey are your OK? I need you to send me your account details so I can send you the money.”
He said he messaged back saying “excuse me? What are you talking about?.”
Similarly, María Ignacia, from Chile, told SBS Spanish that while she was asleep in Australia, scammers contacted her mother in her country from a fake WhatsApp account with her photograph and her name to deliver some bad news.
They wrote: “Mummy how are you? I’m talking to you from another number because I had to change it. I’ve broken up with my partner and I’m coming back to Chile to see you, I’m not well.”
María said her mother immediately called her back, “heartbroken and crying”, asking her if she was fine, to which María answered: “Mum, I am fine, I have no problems since we spoke yesterday.”
Fortunately, both César and María realized in time that something strange was unfolding so no family members consigned any money.
But others have not been as lucky.
Tania* , an Ecuadorian national and her Chilean husband have both had their profiles cloned by scammers several times who subsequently contacted their relatives and friends.
On one of those occasions, the scammers managed to trick one of their friends in Chile, telling him that he needed to solve a problem of a shipment of merchandise with Fedex, Tania said.
When the friend went to the bank to deposit AUD$8000, a bank officer tried to warn him it was a scam because Fedex had its own corporate account, she said.
“He contacted my husband’s mum who lives here in Sydney at 4am, she called my husband and he said ‘no, I’m not asking for anything.’ He contacted his friend in Santiago to warn him, but it was too late,” she said.
Tania said the friend responded: “Well, I’ve already lost AUD$3800 which was what I deposited the first time”, when he found out he’d been scammed.
The first thing cybersecurity experts recommend victims is to report the fake profile to the social media platform involved, for example, Facebook.
However, this doesn’t always guarantees a solution to the problem, as explained by Vanessa*, another alleged victim of identity cloning on social media networks.
I sent the report to Facebook, and they told me that the person was not impersonating me, even though they had my picture.
In fact, Vanessa said she found multiple cloned profiles with her name and photographs.
Another problem is that the law in most countries does not consider impersonating a social media profile as a crime unless an illegal action is committed through it, according to Mr Jesús.
If there was no wrongful act, it is not usually considered a crime he said.
“If, for example, someone creates a profile to defraud someone, there is a crime there. If someone simply takes some photos of you to create a profile, it would be an offence related to intellectual property but this crime is considered minor in most countries,” he said.
He added that it all depended on the gravity of the situation and the victim needed to have verifiable evidence to present to authorities.
Mr Jesús said he recommended using several free tools available online, such as the www.egarante.com site, which allowed people to formalise screenshots of conversations, emails, among others, so that they could be valid before a judge, even if the offender deleted the profile or conversations.
If people fall victim to cybercrime in Australia, they can report the incident to the Australian Cybersecurity Centre. To learn more, click reportcyber.
To check current scams, people can visit Scamwatch or contact the police in their state or territory to ask for assistance.
“Cloning” or creating fake profiles using people’s information can be difficult to report to the authorities if the scam doesn’t materialise.
How to avoid becoming a victim of a scam
Mr Jesús said a simple step people could take to protect themselves from scams was to examine their profiles to check how much personal information is freely available to the public.
“You have to search your own conscience and determine if it is necessary to publish so much information free of charge to the world. For example, many people on Facebook, surprisingly, publish their relatives’ names for the public to see, ” he said.
In the end, all that information, which does not really contribute in any way, because you are not going to stop being a cousin or brother by not making that relationship public on Facebook, gives criminals an opportunity to start a scam.
Computer expert Alberto Roura said he agreed with Mr Jesús and suggested raising the topic of privacy settings with family members who were not as computer literate.
He said social engineering is becoming increasingly advanced and cybercriminals are able to analyse any small detail or messages left on a friend’s or family member’s profile.
Learn more about how online criminals operate through “social engineering,” by visiting this page from the Australian Cybersecurity Centre.
Some people like Nicole*, a Honduran woman in Australia who said she was exhausted from having her profile cloned, have taken extreme measures to avoid the problem.
“I have stopped putting pictures of myself on social media. I have everything on private and if you look at my Facebook profile, I have a picture of a dog in front of a computer, and it has worked for me,” she said.
“In recent months no one has wanted to copy my profile. I think it’s the only way to stop them from stealing my identity.”
Luis Satch, from Mexico, who was also a victim of the cloning scam, said people should be more cautious with their private information in order to protect others.
“…when I say this to them they say ‘I really don’t care that they see my data because I don’t put anything very personal on Facebook’ however, they don’t realise that by having friends on Facebook, they open the door for criminals to see their friends’ data,” Mr Satch said.
According to Mr Satch, it is also important to watch for warning that indicate that the person contacting you isn’t really who they say they are.
Experts also give the following recommendations:
- Examine if the person’s spelling o writing skills match their educational level.
- Review the way the person refers to you (nicknames used or words of affection) and the way they express themselves.
- Look at the country code (if they write to you on WhatsApp). The code must match that of the country in which the person resides. In the case of Australia, for example, it is +61.
- Look for dates to see if the account from which they are writing to you has been recently created.
- If they ask you for money, raise the alarm.
To protect your online privacy:
- Change the privacy settings of all your social media accounts to “private”.
- Don’t accept friend invitations from strangers.
- Minimise the information you share on your profile (workplace, family, friends).
- Do not provide personal data through text messages or chats. Always go to the company’s website or call them directly.
Finally, if in doubt, it is recommended that people ask the caller for information that only a close friend or relative would know. Alternatively, make a video call.