Online scams are as old as the internet. The Nigerian businessman seeking money from their victims so they can transfer money back to them from a non-existent bank, or the fake emails from a scammer pretending to represent a government agency telling you about a problem are among the most famous ones.
With the rise of social media — whether LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram — a new way to find out information about a federal employee or military service member is easier than ever.
This is why the Army released one of the most fascinating requests for information in recent times.
The Army is looking for help from a vendor to find, monitor and get rid of imposter social media accounts.
Among the capabilities the Army is looking for a vendor to provide are “an existing commercially available, user-friendly, web-based solution to monitor and mitigate imposter profiles on social media platforms. A solution that is automated and secure (not susceptible to hacking). The ability to query at a minimum, but not limited to the following social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Skype, Instagram and YouTube as well as the ability to include new/additional social media networks as they arise.”
But what’s more interesting about this effort is this goes beyond what the government already is trying to do to secure social media accounts.
The General Services Administration provides a service, called the U.S. Digital Registry, to let the public and others confirm the official status of social media and public-facing collaboration accounts, including mobile apps and websites.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Martha Dorris, a former GSA executive and now founder of Dorris Consulting International. “If the Army goes through the digital registry, then the ones that don’t have the check mark are fake, but the public needs to be educated on what a real site looks like. It sounds to me like they are asking for someone to monitor social media and continually report about what they are doing, so maybe they have identified a problem. The government isn’t usually looking for things to solve that aren’t problems. I think they have identified something that has happened, started doing research, and are seeing it’s an issue, so they are trying to get a jump on it.”
Dorris may be right about the Army identifying a problem. In mid-January and again in early February, the service put out press releases to its soldiers and their families warning against online scams.
The Feb. 9 notice, coming just before Valentine’s Day, warned soldiers and their families about scam artists “using the online photographs and names of unsuspecting U.S. soldiers to build false identities. The criminals then use those identities to pretend to be U.S. soldiers to steal money from their civilian victims.”
As Dorris found out the hard way, it’s not difficult to create fake accounts. She said scam artists twice have created fake accounts in her name.
“Someone took my picture and created a fake account and started friending my friends. They pick and choose who they friend. After about two months, you start getting Facebook messages that someone has hacked or duplicated your account because you got a message from someone who already is your friend and they got a new friend request. You can put a note on the wall saying it’s a fake account or report the fake account to Facebook.”
A government official, who requested anonymity because they didn’t receive permission to talk to the press, said this problem or challenge isn’t one that is seen much across government as of now.
But the official said there are several companies that provide this type of service to run automated checks of different social media accounts.
Dorris said when she was at GSA, the Digital Registry didn’t provide these services to deal with imposter or fake social media accounts. There is no indication on its website that the registry does so now either.
Amy Eisman, the director media entrepreneurship and special programs at the American University’s School of Communication, said while she wasn’t familiar with the Army’s goals, it may be part of the growing influence of social media on government.
“I do not know whether the Army is interested in ferreting out leakers or in protecting security. And you would have to ask the Army why it needs outside help,” Eisman said by email. “All I can say is that fake/phony/alternative accounts are seeping into all of our institutions, confusing citizens all the more.”