The rip-off: Websites like Facebook have become fertile ground for scam artists who hijack members’ accounts to spread viruses and spam. Via news feeds and messages, they distribute videos or phony gift certificates that appear to be from friends but, when downloaded, install damaging software on your computer. Two cons going around Facebook this year: a page offering a $1,000 Ikea gift card in exchange for your personal information; and messages asking for money, supposedly from friends in trouble who are traveling overseas. These scams can spread through e-mail, too. A recent one, a bogus coupon for a free bag of Doritos, did not harbor a virus, but it did cause Frito-Lay a big headache.
The tip-off: Although lots of legitimate companies send customers special offers by e-mail and use Facebook to market promotions, these deals rarely involve opening an attachment. As for those $1,000 or $500 gift cards? Facebook warns members on its security page (facebook.com/security) to be wary when overly generous offers are dangled in front of you. And any request for money should set off alarms. Last year Erin Fry, 41, of Chelsea, Michigan, received a Facebook message supposedly from her mother saying that she had been robbed while on vacation, along with a plea for money. “I knew my mother wasn’t in Europe,” says Fry, “but some of her friends who also received the message thought the request was legitimate, since my parents do travel frequently. Luckily no one sent any money.”
How to protect yourself: Don’t be seduced into opening an attachment unless you’re absolutely certain of its origin. If the offer or video is tempting and it seems legit, first peruse websites like Snopes.com (a fact-checking source for Internet rumors) and Consumerist.com (a consumer-advocacy website); they’re quick to publish news about fake deals and viruses making the rounds (no, the Olive Garden did not recently offer Facebook “fans” $500 gift cards). You can also go to the Coupon Information Corporation (cents-off.com), which lists counterfeit coupons. To avoid catching a virus—or getting scammed—on Facebook, don’t click on links in messages from friends that seem out of character, especially ones soliciting money. Would a friend really use social media to ask to borrow cash? Probably not.