Facebook groups offering free electronics might be scam

Students should be wary of giving away personal information online.

Facebook groups offering free electronics for joining and referring new members are possibly scams aimed at collecting students' personal information, putting them at risk for identity theft, an MU professor said.

Dale Musser, an MU computer science professor, said offers like those are adaptations on a common scam to get consumers to purchase fake products or give away personal information.

"This is a variation of a game that has been played outside of Facebook for a long time," Musser said. "They used to target senior citizens through the U.S. mail, and now they've moved online."

Such scams start by collecting seemingly benign demographic information such as names, birthdays and locations before requiring users to make a purchase, Musser said. Generally, the purchase has to be "verified" before a user will receive anything but users usually receive nothing, even if they did make a purchase, he said.

Those Facebook groups use many similar graphics and an almost identical storyline. The pitch usually says if 100,000 or 1 million people join the group, everyone who is a member will receive a free electronic, such as a Dell laptop computer or an Apple iPod touch, to entice users into joining and inviting others.

One such group stated an unnamed company had "thousands" of free iPod touches to give away to group members. Users who joined were then asked to paste a section of code in their browers' address bar to invite more than the 20 members allowed by Facebook at one time. The users were then asked to take a survey at a third-party site to "prove they are human."

A search on this survey site revealed its owners' actual contact information was blocked from public view by a site called DomainsByProxy.com. The service, owned by the popular Web hosting company GoDaddy.com, substitutes the company's contact information for the owners on publicly viewable registration records to protect the owner's identity.

GoDaddy spokesman Nick Fuller said the service offered by DomainsByProxy.com complies with the law because the company has the service's actual registration information on file and would act on any complaints filed by Facebook users.

"It is legal," Fuller said. "We have the contact info for the site owner, and if there are complaints, we have a dedicated department for that."

Senior Alex Lenox, an information technology major, said he had seen such groups on the site but avoided joining them to protect his personal information.

"I think they're pretty sketchy, honestly," Lenox said. "How do you know they have the iPods? I feel it's just an ulterior motive to get your information and send things to you."

Musser said users should only purchase products online from trusted, well-known vendors and said users should check the Web addresses of survey sites. If the URL looks like a series of strange numbers or words, the site might be a piece of information-stealing code.

Ultimately, he said it is the users' responsibility to guard their information from scammers.

"There is nothing to protect you from making dumb decisions," Musser said. "There is no magic technology to get around this."

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