The 11.6 Hours Twitter Scam and Other Telltale Scams In Social Media

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Last week, millions of curious Tweeters followed an innocent link claiming to show them how many hours they'd spent on microblogging network Twitter. The message was straightforward: "I have spent 11.6 hours on Twitter. How much have you? Find out here."

They were in for a lesson in security. Once clicked, the link would take them to a site that then tried to connect to "Time on Tweeter," a rogue application that would spread the same message to all the user's contacts before directing them to a revenue-generating survey page. Discerning users may not have fallen for the financial trap, but to date, no one knows how much of the victims' private information was accessed. The fiasco, though short-lived, was early proof of what IT security firm Sophos had announced in January: social networking scams are the biggest security threat for 2011.

Security was never the strong suit of social networks. Their broad market and sheer size make them an attractive target for scammers, and the larger they get, the more prone they are to such breaches. Indeed, the "11.6 hour scam," as it has been dubbed, is just one of many. Facebook has seem far more and bigger attempts at stealing users' information. These things prey on the Web user's innate curiosity, sympathy, boredom, greed, and more often than not, ignorance. Scammers are getting smarter by the minute, and the fact is that we're going to have to smarten up too if we want to keep our personal networks safe.

Take a closer a look at some of the most notable scams to hit social networks in recent years, and what lessons we can learn from them.

The Free iPad: If it's too good to be true, it probably is
This offer made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter in August 2010, urging readers to "hurry, check it out, this website is glitching and sending out free iPads to everyone!" If you've seen a similar message, chances are someone in your network has already fallen for it. Sophos was quick to confirm it was a scam; Twitter followed soon after, saying that there was no free iPad to be had.

The scammers behind them rode on the wave of public greed that accompanies the release of new gadgets. It was well timed: the iPad had hit U.S. shelves just four months earlier. What this teaches us is that freebies don't just land on our laps. A free Starbucks drink may be okay, but a $500 gadget certainly deserves a few raised eyebrows.

Haiti Donation Scams: Keep your emotions in check
No joke about it: some scammers will sink so low as to use tragedies like the Haiti earthquake to trick users out of their money. According to Catalin Cosoi, head of BitDefender's Online Threats Lab, these scams usually ask you to donate a token amount, often less than a dollar, through PayPal, your credit card, or an SMS message. Most of these platforms have security measures in place, so you may not lose your money--but you do put your bank account information, personal data, and contact details at risk.

It's essentially a high-tech form of emotional blackmail. Messages are often accompanied by pictures of emaciated African children or families digging through piles of rubble, designed to tug at your heartstrings and cloud your judgment. Learn to get past the imagery and see things from a practical point of view: why is this guy asking for my money? Do they really need all that information? Why use Facebook? If you want to help, contact your government or an established local organization.

Farmville Scams: Having too much fun?
Few other Facebook applications are as plagued with scams as Farmville, the application that has propelled its creator Zynga to market values topping $5.5 billion. About a dozen Farmville scams made the news last year alone, many of them using fake items such as money, livestock, and trips (all virtual, of course) to get users to click links or authorize applications to access their accounts. Effects range from unauthorized wall posts to the harvesting of private account information from unwitting users, who think it's all in good fun.

Farmville and its contemporaries capitalize on the fact that people are easily bored and easily hooked. One stumbles across Farmville on a lazy afternoon, and before long, he's trading produce and sending invitations to his entire friends list. They are especially easy targets when they're engrossed in a game and will mindlessly authorize any request that gets in their way. Be a bit more mindful on social networks, whether you're catching up with old friends or trading virtual Teacup Pigs.

Spotting scams

The good news is that most of these scams are easy enough to pick out. You can spot some of the more obvious ones through the following telltale signs:

Shortened links: These were invented primarily for microblogging, where posts are limited to 140 characters. However, they hide the real address from users, making it hard to spot suspicious sites.

Unsolicited requests: "Hey, someone on MySpace has a crush on you! Just click here and log in." More often than not, the link takes you to a fake landing page where your login information is promptly harvested.

Flashy numbers: That single mom from your hometown who makes $10,000 a month working from her kitchen? There's probably a grain of truth to it, but they're more likely to be online versions of the notorious pyramid scheme.

Chain letters: We've all had friends pass us quotes from Gandhi or some inspirational message from Bill Gates, asking us to repost them for some noble cause. At best, someone's getting a good laugh out of it. Worst case scenario, it's a scammer scouting for gullible users to befriend later on.

As we've said, these incidents are part of a long string of attacks, some of them merely annoying and others bordering on the criminal. In an ideal world, the Facebook and Twitter security teams will always have our backs. But the fact that these scams are still getting through tells us that we're all responsible for our own online safety. In this age of increasing freedom, a little vigilance goes a long way.

Ally Tobias is a guest blogger and part of the team that manages Australian Credit Cards, a free purchase cards service in Australia. Before joining HLF, she was a Media Planner with McCann Worldgroup Philippines, Inc., with award-winning executions, including the Levi's 501 "Live Unbuttoned" global campaign.

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