The National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute
Protecting the Public and Vulnerable Populations from Fraudulent Scams on Social Media
Lilianne Daniel, Deputy Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey; Alberto De Puy, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of the State of Louisiana; Ye’ela Harel, Senior Deputy, State’s Attorney’s Cybercrime Unit, Ministry of Justice, Israel; Sang Hyun Kim, Senior Prosecutor, Cybercrime Investigation, Department of Seoul Eastern District Prosecutor’s Office, South Korea; Dufie Prempeh, Senior State Attorney, Prosecutions Division, Office of the Attorney General, Ghana
This group was asked to ponder the conundrum that prosecutors often face where they respond reactively to fraudulent internet activity after becoming aware of cases when investigators or non-governmental organizations alert them. They were asked to focus on ways in which prosecutors may take a more proactive role in developing strategies that help minimize the impact or prevent altogether cybercrime scams, fraudulent activity, and harassment of vulnerable groups and the public in general. The group identified the most vulnerable populations, challenges for these groups and law enforcement, highlighting the participants’ country-specific scenarios, and offered their recommendations for lessening the effect of cybercrime on these individuals.
As cybercrime becomes more lucrative, widespread, and easy to commit, all citizens are at risk for victimization by criminals using social media. However, vulnerable populations are most at risk and severely affected by social media scams and frauds. These vulnerable populations across the world typically include the elderly, victims of intimate partner violence, minor children, immigrants, and the unemployed. Prosecutors should identify these groups as well as regionally-specific vulnerable populations in their jurisdictions to better protect them through education, communication with law enforcement, and prevention techniques. This article identifies the most vulnerable populations and their challenges, and offers suggestions and recommendations on how best to prevent them from becoming victims of fraudulent uses of social media.
Identifying Vulnerable Populations
The most vulnerable members of society when it comes to cybercrime are often those who trust easily, tend to be more naïve, and are less adept with the ever-advancing world of technology. Efforts to prevent cybercrime should identify these likely victims. This process should include analyzing current victim databases, communicating with credit card companies to identify patterns in victim demographics, and partnering with internet payment companies like PayPal to gather information about those filing complaints. Engaging private sector companies in dialogues and encouraging the creation and implementation of law enforcement portals for reporting could aid this data gathering. This process should also include civic groups, such as senior citizen centers and youth organizations, that can best communicate with their members to help protect them.
Across the globe, certain populations are always high-risk targets for cybercriminals. The elderly, those referred to in Ghana, for instance, as “BBC” (born before computers), often lack an innate understanding of technology and social media and are more liable to trust strangers. These citizens are also the most frequently targeted by technical support scams and will provide their personal identifying information and passwords to criminals freely in order to “fix” software accounts which are reportedly “broken.”
Conversely, children and teenagers who grew up using the internet are so accustomed to sharing the most private information on social media that they fail to consider the ramifications of posting this sensitive material on public forums. Cyberbullying on social media has become rampant, as children use the anonymity of a screen to create fraudulent accounts and harass their classmates. Sexually explicit images of children, both provided willingly and through cases of “sextortion,” can then enter into the larger network of child exploitation content, revictimizing these children every time the files are shared. Both of these groups, in different ways, are more vulnerable due to their more trusting nature.
Other groups are targeted based upon their lack of knowledge regarding financial decision making. Immigrants often arrive in countries unaware of the culture and infrastructure of their new home country, leaving them without a grasp of the language, culture, or financial practices. For example, immigrants may be targeted by scammers via Facebook for assistance in finding homes and/or employment in their new country. Individuals seeking romantic relationships can also be targeted through their lack of understanding in this field. This population, often desperate for connection, are more willing to provide money to perceived romantic partners in order to meet “in real life” and pursue a relationship.
Around the world, there are specific groups that are more directly targeted in specific countries than in the rest of the world. For example, in South Korea, criminals frequently target individuals seeking jobs by requiring that they pay a nominal fee for help in finding a job. These young, desperate job seekers will provide the criminal with bank account numbers, and the criminal will then empty the bank account and disappear, having provided no services to the job seeker. Certain areas of the United States also are more likely to have a high concentration of immigrants, thus resulting in similar predatory activity based upon perceived or actual vulnerabilities. Prosecutors must therefore keep track of local communities to identify the most vulnerable in each area, as well as protecting the typically vulnerable groups.
Challenges Presented for Vulnerable Populations
The breadth and magnitude of data shared on social media is staggering. Facebook reports that 300 million pictures are shared on the platform every day, and 510 million comments are posted every minute. Twitter reports that 500 million tweets are posted every day. Five hundred hours of video are posted to YouTube every minute. Seventy-five percent of the global population is on some form of social media, and seventy percent of Americans use social media at least once per day.
These private companies have legal and oversight departments that attempt to monitor the behavior of users through artificial intelligence, human review, and other methods. However, with such an incredibly large amount of data being shared on the platforms, these departments cannot see or closely monitor and regulate everything that happens between users. With such a strong focus on the prevention of high-profile crime, such as terrorism, human trafficking, and child exploitation, the more subtle language of social media scammers may go undetected until it is too late. By the time these fraudulent accounts or posts are reported, the victims often have already suffered monetary or emotional harm.
Efficient information sharing processes between internet service providers, social media companies, tech companies, and law enforcement is often lacking, which can be a roadblock to effective working relationships. Legal process differs across jurisdictions and, even with United States law enforcement, it can be labor-intensive to obtain useful data from companies seeking to protect the privacy interests of their users and limit their own liability for sharing this information. Other organizations with a vested interest in these issues, such as child advocacy groups, consulates (in the case of immigrants), and civic groups such as educational administrators and senior centers, are not often included in discussions about social media crime. If the interests of the most vulnerable groups are not represented during the crafting of solutions, they will receive less support and assistance.
Language and Cultural Barriers
Certain groups, based on their own cultural preferences and/or language comprehension difficulties, are less likely to engage with law enforcement when they are victimized. This can be due to a distrust of the police or a cultural norm indicating that the police should not be included in “private” matters. There is also an element of embarrassment, particularly for the elderly, who think they should have known better than to trust the scammer or the person who has exhausted their savings in the pursuit of a perceived romantic relationship.
Working Across Borders
With regard to working across borders with social media companies, the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) often does not provide prompt assistance to foreign law enforcement conducting investigations. While in theory the MLAT process should provide information to those overseas as easily as those in the same countries as the social media companies, this often is not the case.
Criminals themselves often also reach across national borders to find victims and to avoid detection and apprehension. For example, in Ghana, scammers target older women in the Western world on dating websites such as Badoo.com and eHarmony. The scammers gain the trust of these women and eventually request money for their “weddings,” knowing these women have a pension and therefore have money to help facilitate and fund the scam unknowingly.
Education and Outreach
Law enforcement and community organizations alike should interface frequently with these most vulnerable populations and craft education and outreach programs most likely to resonate with those groups. In Louisiana, for instance, the “Know More Louisiana” program conducts live presentations in schools to inform children of the dangers of cyberbullying and provide them with tools to aid them in combatting the detrimental emotional effects of cyberbullying. In New Jersey, a holiday season awareness campaign set up tables outside technology stores in shopping malls and provided parents with information about protecting their children from potential dangers of their newly acquired tech gifts
Campaigns should use language and styles most likely to be well-received by vulnerable groups. All education and outreach should be published in multiple languages to protect non-native speakers of a country’s official language. With respect to the elderly, plain language should be used in lieu of highly technical language, and this information should be made available in places frequented by the elderly. Methods such as radio advertisements may be effective with the elderly but would not resonate as effectively with children. Using social media accounts to promulgate public service announcements can also quickly and directly target individuals using those platforms.
Law Enforcement Methods
Communication is key in creating trust relationships between law enforcement and vulnerable populations. Diversifying the police force will encourage all citizens to see themselves in the faces of law enforcement and encourage wider reporting. Furthermore, law enforcement should receive social media training to better patrol for fraudulent uses and be aware of the populations most at risk for cybercrime. Creating a friendly, open environment and conducting public forums at youth centers will encourage sharing and reporting by these at-risk citizens.
Children often do not have experience with police interactions, and law enforcement should take special care in building relationships with youth. For instance, Israel has a police hotline for children and their parents, which encourages them to call for assistance in protecting themselves online, including guiding them through cyberbullying issues and how to erase unwanted data from their devices. In the United States, a legislative addendum to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) increasing the age of a “child” from 13 to 18 would expand these protections to teenagers in some of their most susceptible years. Further training for law enforcement to interact with children in schools and extracurricular activities could inspire trust with the police at an early age as well.
Working with Transnational Partners
Social media companies need to be included in efforts to make their own platforms safer and less susceptible to scams. Law enforcement should be as specific as possible when serving a company with legal process seeking data; however, the company itself should also maintain an open line of communication with law enforcement in order to facilitate the transmission of important evidence with a proper legal foundation. With the immense amount of personal information shared on social media, companies also should be exercising more care over keeping this data closely guarded, including making all profiles (but especially those of children) private by default.
It is also more important than ever for law enforcement agencies across the world to share information and work together to apprehend cybercriminals. A recent South Korean case involving phishing and fraudulent cryptocurrency exchanges connected South Korean law enforcement officials and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations, and ultimately uncovered South Korean and Japanese scammers, targeting victims in both of those countries. These agencies used the 24-7 Network, a list of contacts in 50 countries who are available to help with investigations involving electronic evidence, by making efforts to ensure that internet service providers freeze the information sought by a requesting party as soon as possible. They then provided each other with records and evidence based on the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. They were able to obtain optimal results by open communication. Law enforcement agencies should maintain open lines of communication and a willingness to assist the larger goal of eliminating social media fraud, even if the case does not originate in their jurisdiction.
There are challenges to preventing social media scams that victimize vulnerable populations. These recommendations seek to facilitate collaboration across nations and improve outreach campaigns that help vulnerable groups protect themselves against scams. This work is not easy and will require consistent efforts and time but, considering the high cost of cybercrime financially and emotionally, these efforts are both worthwhile and necessary. Addressing these issues requires that government officials, including prosecutors, make them a priority, and take a stand to help eradicate this problem. With concerted efforts extended to empower and educate vulnerable populations about the dangers of cybercrime scams and fraudulent activity, predators will find it more difficult to prey on them. Taking such steps, even if incremental in scope, can make a huge difference.
 James Hale, More Than 500 Hours Of Content Are Now Being Uploaded To YouTube Every Minute, TubeFilter, May 7, 2019, https://www.tubefilter.com/2019/05/07/number-hours-video-uploaded-to-youtube-per-minute/.
Andrew Perrin and Monica Anderson, Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018, Pew Research Center (April 10, 2019), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/
 15 U.S.C. §6501-6508.
 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, art.35, E.T.S. No 185 (July 1, 2004).