I received a message on Facebook on Sunday. Because it went into my 'Filtered Requests', from someone to whom I'm not connected, I didn't see it until Wednesday evening. Even then, after a cursory glance, I nearly deleted it.
Luckily I didn't. I had second thoughts and took a look at the sender's Facebook account. She seemed genuine enough. So I replied.
Here is what Sarah (not her real name) said in her original message:
"Mr. Lopata, just for your information, I was stupidly pulled into a horrible scam. Someone is using your pictures on facebook, building up a friendship and then using extortion to get money. Please secure your pictures. There are terrible people out there."
I had heard about this happening in the past to other people but had seen no signs of anyone using my image in that way. I asked Sarah to tell me more.
"This man somehow friend requested me on facebook. Your face was what came up. You looked like a decent person so I accepted.
"We corresponded on messenger, with him giving his story of living in Bolton, that he is a motivational speaker, using your pictures.
"Long story short, he won my heart and trust, stupid me sending him one or two personal pictures.
"He giving a story that he needed money from me, threatening to expose same pictures to all my contacts if I did not comply. Never got so scared in my life.
"Thankfully I confided to one of my friends who got her son to block him and reported him to facebook. I believe he is a Nigerian as he gave me a name and address to send the money to. My sister found a website where she entered your picture. Lo and behold, it was your name and not Dave Davenport, which is what he called himself."
I searched for Dave Davenport's profile and sure enough, among the lists of results, was my profile picture staring back at me. The name was different, for sure, and the fraudsters had limited their imaginations when it came to the imaginary Dave's life travels and education, but every picture throughout the profile was lifted straight from my own Facebook profile.
I immediately took two simple steps. I followed the Facebook procedures to report the profile as pretending to be me and asked my network to do the same. Despite my nagging concern that this profile was still live despite being reported by Sarah's friend's son, surely this would work.
In the meantime, Sarah shared more of her experience,
"I will explain this nightmare.
"In conversation with him, he explained that he is also a zoologist and he got this contract to supply two rare tigers for a zoo. He has to use his money (£130,000) to purchase these cats from his agent in South Africa. He goes on about getting disapointments in finding healthy cats and the time running out.
"His agent finally gets a contact in Nigeria for a cat and he needs to send a downpayment quickly to hold the cat but he is not successful in sending from where he is. That's where he asks me to send it from here. I refused, he gets angry and then reminds me of the pictures I sent...the rest is history.
"This conversation was Saturday evening last. I told him I did not have access to a lot of money. He told me to send whatever I had on me by Money Gram.
"Andy, I have NEVER done anything like this before.
He called me on messenger a few times, giving me a time frame in which to get the money to his "Agent". Before 5:00am Sunday morning he was on my case.
I was really going to send the money, but I went on Google to see how to deal with this. One article said, do NOT send money as your signature and other personal information will be online.
"I went in line, but the line was unusually long. I went into my car and cried. And I prayed... I was lost. My friend's face came to me, so I called her. She was my angel, she invited me over, drove to her house in a daze. Fortunately, her son was home and he helped me sort things out."
My friends were quick to respond to my request for help. Over 60 reported the fake profile and many shared the post and asked their friends to do the same. Thank you everyone. Surely with this many people all complaining about the same profile in a short period of time, Facebook would shut down the fraudulent account quickly.
It seems not. One by one my friends received the same response from Facebook:
How low are the Community Standards in a community that allows criminals to steal another member's images, use them to set up a fake profile and use that profile to deceive, defraud and bully another member?
And don't get me wrong. This isn't a one-off. There is no Dave Davenport (well, not in this case anyway). This is a front for a criminal organisation. One of many fronts that are being used to defraud innocent people worldwide every hour of every day.
Yet Facebook lets it pass.
For every hour that this Dave Davenport profile is live, the chance is that more people are being bullied, harassed and stolen from.
Of course, as soon as it is taken down, another will simply take it place. But that's no reason not to take action. I believe that there is a strong chance that people are being robbed because of Facebook's inactivity. And that's not acceptable in any community.
And it seems to have been so easy for the fraudsters to escape sanction. Shortly after my friends started to report the profile en masse, the profile picture on the Dave Davenport profile changed to one not of me (or one with any discernible features). But everything else stayed the same. Every other image remains of me.
I hope that Facebook will take action. But it shouldnt' need a blog like this to demand it. This is clearly a major issue. If Facebook can't even respond when it's this obvious, what chance is there that they are taking the overall issue seriously?
Where is the education for members telling them to be careful before accepting a friend request from someone they don't know?
Where is the education for members sharing the warning signs that someone is possibly going to defraud you?
What can we do as a community to wake Facebook up to the inadequacy of their response and to protect the more vulnerable among us?
In this case there might at least be a bright side. From what I can tell, Sarah didn't part with any money but she is very shaken by the whole experience and less trustful of other people. Which, while that might be a good thing in many ways, is a real shame too.
Her sister had tracked me down, however, by searching my profile image and finding my website. And I did receive this positive message from Sarah,
"Hello Mr. Lopata, me again. I am just dropping a line to thank you for taking prompt action on this matter. Also, I took the opportunity to view what topics you are into. I was so happy I did this as I am thinking of starting a little business of my own and your networking topics have been really helpful for when I am ready to start. Thank you so much."