Friday night, a friend of mine instant-messaged me on Facebook saying he needed my help. On his profile, there were several messages urging people to contact him right away. I was of course concerned.
Soon it became apparent that it wasn't my friend at all. His identity had been hijacked by a scammer who posted the messages to his profile and IMed his friends. The Nigerian scam has been going on in this form at least since January, when Silicon Alley Insider and TechCrunch reported on it. It's a reminder that wherever consumers go, scammers and other malevolent elements will follow. In this case, it's also an unfortunate brand association with Western Union, as you'll see momentarily.
Excerpts of the conversation are below, and you can read the entire transcript on my blog. I've changed the name of my friend to Walter Jenkins, but otherwise it's verbatim.
Walter: I had to visit a resort here in London on vacation and I got robbed at the hotel Im staying... Its really sucks and scary here... I got robbed at a gun point and all my money and stuffs got stolen but im lucky I still have my passport with me. Well, can I ask for a favor?
David: what do you need?
Walter: What i need now is just some cash to complete my tix till im back home to refund you back. Can you help with some money?... $390 pounds is all i need more. I can get it from the ATM for you first thing as soon as Im back home... You can get it to me here using western union. You need just my name as written on my passport and the location here. Do you know how to go about with the western union thing?
David: Using paypal to transfer funds won't do anything for you?
Walter: Im glad you are helping Dav. Western union is very easy to transfer money and to receive money. [An aside: this is just about the worst brand endorsement a marketer could ever receive, which would be topped only if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was shown drinking a Pepsi while jailing election protestors.]
David: If you're online, can't i just use paypal?
Walter: I don't have paypal acct [He's a technology entrepreneur. If the red flags weren't up already, they're signaling major alarms here.]
David: what's the location
Walter: United Kingdom London... Do you know any western union location around you?... You will be given a confirmation number
David: yes i found many locations. i can help. tell me more about where you are. [At this point, I'm stringing him along to get as much information as possible in case it's helpful later.]
Walter: I'll be needing it to pick up the money. You need just my name as written on my passport and my location here. Name:Walter Jenkins. Location United Kingdom, London
David: okay but there are many locations in london, tell me more about where you are
Walter: I can pick up the money at any western union location
David: Okay, great. so tell me why you only need 390 GBP if you were held up at gunpoint
Walter: I need it to complete my ticket and fly back home.
David: how about i just buy you the ticket? i'll go online and buy it for you. tell me which flight you want, which airports
Walter: I'll need the cash for some things more
David: Well if you already have some money for the ticket, use the money you have for the other things. i'll buy the ticket [This exchange went on for awhile, leading nowhere.]
Walter: Im in a library here using the comp here to get on facebook for help
David: a friend of mine happens to be at heathrow right now, i just IMed him. can i have him meet you there?
Walter: Well, Its okay if you can't help
David: i can help. what flight are you taking?
Walter: B.A. Why can't you go to the store and have it done now?
David: What time is your flight?
Walter: I don't think you really want to help. Its okay. the manager will be helping me to purchase the ticket here
David: oh that is SOOO nice of him, then you can use your money to buy whatever else you need. which library are you at? that way i can look up how far you are from heathrow.
Then it abruptly stopped talking. I managed to save the conversation just in time, as soon he defriended me. I still had access to read his Facebook Wall (though not post on it), so I emailed a few people who responded to the scammer's posts there and let them know. The next day, my friend had his account back and we were friends again.
If your account is compromised, Facebook will disable it. It can be reinstated after contacting them via a form. A Facebook representative told Silicon Alley Insider, "We're reminding users to be very suspicious of anyone, even friends, who ask you over the Internet to send money. Please verify their circumstances through some other means than the web (e.g. call them or mutual friends)." You should also make sure they share information about themselves that isn't publicly available on Facebook or elsewhere.
As for Western Union, there's a section on its site about scams, but no mention of this one. That's a shame. In the meantime, the Walter Jenkins impersonators out there are doing a good job representing Western Union's brand. "Walter" is doing well spreading the word, as the top city by far searching Google for 'westernunion.com' is Lagos, Nigeria. If you run into him or his buddies, don't send cash. See if he'll go for a Facebook gift instead.