A day after The Times knowledgeable Facebook of its findings, the corporate eliminated all 96 impostor Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg accounts on its Facebook website. It had left up all however one of the 109 fakes on Instagram, however eliminated them after this text was revealed.
“Thank you so much for reporting this,” mentioned Pete Voss, a Facebook spokesman. He couldn’t say why Facebook had not noticed the accounts posing as its high executives, together with a number of that appeared to have existed for greater than eight years. “It’s not easy,” he mentioned. “We want to get better.”
Facebook requires folks to make use of their genuine identify and id. Yet the corporate has estimated that maybe three % of its customers — as many as 60 million accounts — are pretend. Some of these accounts are disguised as bizarre folks, some fake to be celebrities corresponding to Justin Bieber.
In congressional testimony this month, Mr. Zuckerberg mentioned Facebook was improving its software to routinely detect and take away such accounts. Facebook officers have mentioned the corporate blocks thousands and thousands of pretend accounts attempting to register every day and analysts mentioned the social community has improved its efforts to take away the accounts.
“Fake accounts, over all, are a big issue, because that’s how a lot of the other issues that we see around fake news and foreign election interference are happening as well,” Mr. Zuckerberg informed lawmakers, including that Facebook is hiring extra folks to work on reviewing content material.
But main holes stay. Interviews with a half-dozen latest victims — and on-line conversations with 9 impostor accounts — confirmed that the Facebook lottery deception is alive and properly, preying notably on older, much less educated and low-income folks.
The Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg impostor accounts usually use the executives’ footage as profile pictures and listing their Facebook titles. Some put up manipulated pictures of folks holding oversize checks. The names of Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg are typically misspelled, or use parentheses and center names (Elliot for Mr. Zuckerberg and Kara for Ms. Sandberg) to evade Facebook’s software program.
Many of the impersonators had dozens to a whole lot of followers; a number of had hundreds. They are aided by a community of different sham accounts with generic names, corresponding to Jim Towey and Mary Gilbert, which presupposed to be “Facebook claim agents.”
The scammers search victims who, primarily based on their Facebook and Instagram profiles, appear susceptible, mentioned Robin Alexander van der Kieft, who manages a number of Facebook teams that track the scams. The varied pretend accounts share details about profitable shakedowns and proceed pouncing on these victims, he mentioned. He has traced many of the web protocol addresses of these pretend accounts to Nigeria and Ghana.
The pitch usually begins with an unsolicited “Hello. How are you doing?” on Facebook or Instagram. The pretend accounts then proceed, typically in damaged English, to tell folks of their huge Facebook lottery prize.
After a number of messages between The Times and a pretend Sheryl Sandberg account on Instagram final week, the impostor supplied $950,000 and a brand new automobile by way of the “Facebook splash promotion 2018.”
When requested for proof the account was Ms. Sandberg, the scammer despatched a Photoshopped identification. “I want you to know that this Promo is 100% Real and Legitimate and the Government are aware of this Promo you don’t have to be skeptical all you just have to do is to follow all instruction giving to you okay,” the account added.
Three days later, the account mentioned it wanted a $100 iTunes reward card to course of and activate the successful A.T.M. card. (iTunes gift cards can rapidly be redeemed and traded on the black marketplace for money.)
After initially resisting, the sham Ms. Sandberg agreed to a cellphone name, including “I’m not the one that will be speaking to you O.K.” Seconds later, a name arrived from a quantity with a 650 space code — Silicon Valley.
“You have to be careful, there are lots of scam artists,” a person mentioned in accented English after he was knowledgeable that he was talking with The Times. He added, “All I’m trying to do is get your winning package.”
The Times reached out to greater than 50 impostor accounts. Most messages went unreturned. None that replied broke character.
The charade has ensnared folks like Donna Keithley, 50, a stay-at-home mother with 4 youngsters in Martinsburg, Pa. In March 2016, an account with the identify Linda Ritchey messaged Ms. Keithley “on behalf of the Facebook C.E.O Mark Zuckerberg” to go on phrase of her success: $650,000 in lottery winnings. Ms. Keithley wired $350 — a supply charge — the following day.
That started a monthlong saga. According to a 28,000-word transcript of a Facebook Messenger dialog between Ms. Keithley and the account, the scammer repeatedly performed on Ms. Keithley’s Christian religion to get her to ship extra money.
“Are you good Christian with god fears?” the Linda Ritchey account requested. “Can you trust me and also have believe in me?”
Over the following month, Ms. Keithley obtained not solely Facebook messages however a name from a Mr. Zuckerberg impostor who assured her the lottery was actual. She even heard from a Facebook account masquerading as Eileen M. Decker, the previous United States legal professional in Los Angeles, asking for $205 to course of her winnings.
The Times discovered at the very least 5 Facebook accounts posing as Ms. Decker and promoting authorities grants, one other recognized rip-off. Ms. Decker informed The Times that she has tried to get Facebook to take away the accounts, however the website needed an image of her government-issued identification to take action. She refused. “To me, they’re not a trusted source,” she mentioned. She added that she had contacted the F.B.I. and employed a lawyer.
Ms. Keithley’s scammer ordered her to open new bank cards and financial institution accounts, and even to get a mortgage utilizing her husband’s 2001 Ford Taurus as collateral. Midway by way of the month, she mentioned she had a minor stroke from the stress.
By April 2016, she had used her household’s tax refund and loans from kin to pay the scammer $5,306.43 — a lot of it in cash transfers to the identify Ben Amos in Lagos, Nigeria.
“It just devastated the whole household,” mentioned her husband, Tim Keithley, a safety guard who was making $10 an hour on the time.
The ordeal was so expensive, Ms. Keithley mentioned, the household’s phone service was shut off. They additionally needed to go to a meals financial institution.
While Ms. Keithley nonetheless will get messages from accounts claiming to work for Facebook, she mentioned she is now wiser. “Lord as my witness, no one’s getting any more money from me,” she mentioned.
After they’re duped, victims might battle with what to do subsequent. Mr. Bernhardt, the retired forklift driver, mentioned he didn’t know report the scammers to Facebook. Ms. Keithley mentioned she had referred to as a quantity for Facebook she had discovered on-line, although she was undecided the quantity was genuine. She additionally reported the rip-off to native police, who mentioned they couldn’t assist, and the Pennsylvania legal professional normal. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania legal professional normal mentioned the workplace didn’t have a report of Ms. Keithley’s report, however that it deliberate to contact her.
Others mentioned they often report scammers to Facebook, however the firm may be gradual to behave.
Kathryn Schwartz, 55, from Lodi, N.J., mentioned she has been in credit-card debt since she misplaced $1,742 attempting to assert bogus Facebook lottery winnings in 2016. She mentioned she has since been barraged by scammers and often studies them, together with in messages to the true Mr. Zuckerberg.
One Facebook account named Mary Williams lately messaged Ms. Schwartz, saying it could assist her declare her winnings. A evaluation of the account confirmed that in March it had renamed itself, purporting to be a Boise, Idaho, native who works at Facebook. Years of posts earlier than that depicted a person in Nigeria.
When Ms. Schwartz posted on Facebook final week that Mary Williams was a con artist, the account left a remark: “You think you are smart but you are not. If you were smart why were you scammed.” The emojis tacked on the finish of the message had been crying with laughter.
Mr. Bernhardt mentioned that since he wired his final fee to the Mr. Zuckerberg masquerader in January, he has heard from two different Mark Zuckerbergs, one Sheryl Sandberg and different accounts promising him winnings in return for extra cash.
No conversations have gone as deep as together with his unique scammer. “I thought we were getting real close,” Mr. Bernhardt mentioned. “He started calling me Mr. Gary and I started calling him Mr. Mark.”
He mentioned he had informed his scammer about rising up in a foster house and his dream of proudly owning a home on a lake.
“They sucked me in because they knew my dreams,” he mentioned.