Facebook takes steps to deal with gift card scams

The company is developing an automated system to crack down on fake gift card offers

Like many other Facebook users Jeff Crites heard of the US$1,000 Best Buy gift-card offer last month from a friend, a Web savvy director of social media at a Fortune 500 company.

He clicked on a link that took him to a Facebook fan page promising a sweet offer: If he clicked through and was one of the first 20,000 people to become Best Buy fans, he'd get a $1,000 gift card to spend on electronics. To Crites, a marketing consultant who makes his living understanding social media, a $20 million promotion to get just 20,000 Facebook fans struck a wrong note. Companies simply don't give away hundreds of dollars to Facebook fans. "It just didn't seem right and it didn't feel right," he said. "They're going to give away a sandwich or a box of cookies."

He sent a message to the friend who'd mentioned the offer, and within minutes they agreed that it was a scam.

Welcome to the latest Facebook con game: fake gift cards.

In the past months, fan pages have popped up all over the social networking site, offering too-good-to-be-true gift cards. There's the $500 Whole Foods card, the $10 Walmart offer, and the $1,000 Ikea gift card. The Ikea page put these gift card scams on the map last month, when it quickly racked up more than 70,000 fans before being snuffed. Facebook has also taken down Target and iTunes gift card scam pages in the past few months.

Many of these pages have fake posts suggesting that the giveaway offer worked, but the sites typically lead to affiliate marketing Web sites that try to collect data and generate Web traffic for advertisers, according to Simon Axten, a Facebook spokesman.

The gift-card scams have been circulating via e-mail for years now, but they're still a novelty on Facebook.

Because anyone can set up a fan page for virtually anything -- and many pages do contain legitimate gift-card offers -- it's a thorny problem for Facebook to solve. Right now, the company is playing the social networking version of whack-a-mole, with a team of engineers monitoring the problem and deleting groups, applications, and fan pages as quickly as it can find them.

The company is trying to get the upper hand on the scammers, however. "We've started building an automated system to detect this type of suspicious content and behavior more quickly before it's even reported," Axten said in an e-mail interview.

Facebook won't say how many people have joined these fake groups, but according to Axten, "this is happening on a relatively minor scale, especially since we're quickly removing the groups and pages in many cases before they go viral."

Axten advises people to "be suspicious of anything that looks or feels strange online - whether it's an unfamiliar link in a message from a friend who hasn't contacted you in a while, or a promise of something valuable if you invite friends, provide personal information, or download software."

Facebook users should be wary of pages that don't seem to be official -- large retailers typically have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of fans, and a slick look with top-quality graphics. And watch out for pages that only exist in order to promote the free card offer -- a page with the word "offer" in its name, might be a scam, for example.

This Facebook page, entitled Do you need new furniture?, offers a $250 Ikea gift certificate, contained a link to a now-defunct page hosted by a Canadian affiliate marketing company called MaxBounty. Late Tuesday, it claimed 327 fans.

Another page, entitled I Love Walmart offered a $10 gift certificate to users who became fans of the page, and then shared the page with all of their friends. There was no $10 gift certificate, and Facebook removed the page for terms of service violations after IDG News Service e-mailed it to Axten.

This page, contains a Facebook application that, when enabled, asks for an e-mail address and then pleads, "please join us in our quest to put a FREE Best Buy Gift Card into the hands of 50,000 Facebook Users by Sunday, February 28, 2010." After clicking through this step, there was no gift card, merely a broken link to another marketing site, called Platinum-giveaways.com.

Scammers may be moving to Facebook in hopes of getting access to fresh victims. While they are not widespread on Facebook right now, they're a problem, said Audri Lanford, a co-founder of the Scambusters Web site. "these kinds of things, where they're endorsed in a sense because they [come from] your friends, tend to be much more effective," she said.

Though Facebook's Axten says the scams are only being used by affiliate marketers right now, Lanford pointed out that this type of fake gift card scam has been associated with identity theft and malicious software in the past. The scammers in the $500 Whole Foods gift card promotion were reportedly trying to collect sensitive information that could be used in ID theft.

Avoiding these scams is as simple as following the age-old maxim, according to Crites. "If it sounds too good to be true, 99 percent of the time, it is."

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Robert McMillan

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