Social media, scams and local history groups

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

We at the Vermont Historical Society have been working to follow and take part in a range of groups and pages on social media dedicated to local history. It helps us see what events and activities are taking place around the state, and we're always happy to see people engaging with their local historical societies online. These types of Facebook Groups and Pages include everything from "Favorite Barre Vermont Memories" to "Abandoned Vermont" to groups dedicated to specific towns and historical societies. 

In recent months, we've noticed an uptick in scam and spam in some of these types of groups and pages. Facebook and other tech companies have made some significant layoffs in recent months/years, and their internal moderation teams are often a casualty of this, which might account for the uptick in scams and spam.

Here are a handful of the types of scams that we've noticed, as well as some tips for how to deal with these issues when they pop up. These types of scams are designed to prey on the unsuspecting, and given how common these types of things are, they're likely working to some extent. It's worth taking the effort to protect your members and communities from these people.

Fake Groups

One of the more prominent issues that I've been seeing are invitations to other groups: posts where someone says "if you grew up in Vermont, join the Growing Up in Vermont group!" These seem innocuous on their face, but these types of groups are designed to gain as many people as possible, usually by posting generic or easily-findable historic images, and getting people to engage with them. Our suspicion is that these types of groups, once they grow to a certain number, can be sold off or used as a conduit for spam or scam links. 

There are a couple of things to check: if you see a person posting an invitation like this, click on their name and look at what their group profile says. If they've joined up within a couple of days, it's generally a good sign that they're not who they say they are. That page should also show you what their activity in the group is: if they've been liking their own posts or responding to other commenters with similar invitations or links, it's likely a scam.

How you can prevent/mitigate this: if you're an admin in such a group, report the post to Facebook and block them from the group or page. For big groups, you can also put on some basic controls for when and how people post (say, someone has to be in a group for a certain amount of time before they can post something), or turn on moderation controls to screen new posts from members. If you're a user and you see a post like this, click the three little dots in the right-hand corner of the post and select "Report post to group admins", which will notify the administrators. 

Shirt scams

Another common thing that we've been seeing are posts for products, generally shirts. Usually, you'll see a brief message that says "got mine!" or "my autistic child recently designed this shirt, please order to support them" or some variation. There are lots of variations to the images: usually it's a shirt that's connected to the theme of the group, like "Grew up in Barre" or something similar. These are usually accompanied by a link where you can order it. Sometimes, the poster will like their own post and lock the comments. As with the above, you can usually check to see if the poster has joined recently.

There's a risk to entering sensitive credit card information through links such as these: if they aren't harvesting your credit card info, buyers will likely never receive what they've purchased. 

How you can prevent/mitigate this: turn on moderation controls to prevent brand-new members from posting. If you're a member of a group, call out the post as a potential scam to warn your fellow members, and if you're an admin, report, block, and delete the post. 

Page Scams

Something we've noticed periodically on the VHS Facebook page is a scammer who finds a post with lots of comments and replies to all of them, particularly if we have a post that does really well. These are sometimes variations on the shirt or group scams (telling people to buy or join said group), and if you're a page administrator, you'll see 10-15 of these posted quickly, often within seconds of one another. We suspect that the same rationale is at play: scammers working to drum up engagement with their fake accounts, groups, or products, which they can then resell once they reach a certain size. 

How you can prevent/mitigate this: If you're a user, report and block. If you're an administrator for a page, report and block the scammer and make sure that you select "block any other accounts they may create". Once you've blocked and reported them, hide or delete the posts so that your followers can't see them. One thing that I'd recommend doing (if you have the patience / bandwidth) is to turn on push notifications to your phone or computer so that you're alerted when someone posts or comments on a post. It's a useful way to catch these types of things as they're happening, and you can pull them down quickly. 

Other mitigation techniques

One thing that can help cut down on this type of activity is to set some controls for folks who join the group: group administrators can screen new members by asking them a series of questions when they want to join the group. This isn't a failsafe method to prevent this type of activity, but it can throw some barriers in the way and make your group seem a little more difficult to join, potentially pushing a scammer off to another, easier target. And, as noted above, you can impose a posting window for new members.

Group administrators can also set posting guidelines that makes it clear to members what is and isn't acceptable to post: the activities we've laid out in these various scams can be legitimate, and it's up to admins to set the tone and expectations for what content goes into their groups. It's worth being engaged and active to understand the tempo and activity that is taking place. 

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