Trying to Reach Facebook Customer Service? Don't Get Scammed in the Process
A Google search will provide a phone number to scammers asking for iTunes gift cards
It's not the first time you've been kicked off Facebook, but if you're not careful, it may be the first time you get scammed as a result.
Although this is a minor inconvenience for many people, many others actually rely on Facebook to do their work and support themselves. When faced with this situation, these people may try to contact someone at the company for help getting back on. And that's where the trouble starts.
Often, the first step in such a situation is to do an online search. In this case, the search terms would be "Facebook customer service."
If this result returns a phone number, stop! Do not call the number; it's a scam.
NPR reporters got a phone number when they made this search and decided to see what would happen if they called. The number, 844-735-4595, was prominently displayed as Google's top search result. The search engine even made it a so-called "featured snippet," which is a result noted in a box at the top of the page. This practice enhances the result in order to draw attention and lend credibility.
Though they reached someone on the other end when they called, it was not someone from Facebook.
The first time they called, someone answered and then put down the phone, possibly on a table. Mumbling was audible in the room on the other end.
The situation raised red flags for the reporters, so they gave the number to a company called Pindrop, which specializes in phone fraud. One of the company's researchers—who has to stay anonymous for work purposes—called it and recorded the call while he pretended to be a Facebook user having trouble with the site.
The call was answered by a call center operator named "Steven," who is—according to Pindrop's analysis—located in India. He pretended to be a Facebook employee: "Thanks for calling Facebook."
The Pindrop researcher claims to be locked out of his account and needs help reactivating it. He gets very unusual advice from "Steven": go to a Wal-Mart or Target.
"Just walk up over there and tell them to provide you an iTunes card. OK? And on the backside of that iTunes card there would be a 16-digit security code," instructed Steven. "You need to call us back on this same number and provide me that 16-digit security code so that I can activate that access and we'll be giving you the password for your new — for your old account."
Scam alert! Google's top search result for "Facebook customer service" resulted in a person requesting iTunes gift card codes, a well-known method scammers use to steal from innocent victims online. Alerts have been issued regarding this type of scam by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Apple.
Google is not the only place where this scam has popped up. The number used by NPR and Pindrop, along with others, have been circulating around Facebook itself for at least one year on pages where users ask for help. In one case, a user asked if the number is valid and got the following response from a member of Facebook's Help Team: "There isn't a number to contact Facebook. …It sounds like the email or notification you saw is likely a scam." It is not clear whether the Help Team member reported the incident for investigation by her superiors.
Marty Weintraub, founder of Aimclear Marketing, wrote a leading industry book about Facebook advertising.
"Wow. Wow. Wow. That's crazy," he said when told about the problem. "This is an astonishing result."
Weintraub also wrote a book about methods for manipulating search results to raise a company's brand or product to the top. He knows that companies keep an eye on their search results to find out what their customers want. He also knows that both competitors and criminals try to exploit powerful brands. These are all standard practices.
What he finds astonishing is that Facebook apparently missed a search term as simple as "Facebook customer service."
"It's not like somebody's searching for 'Hey, what color are Mark Zuckerberg's socks?' It's not like it's something that's off the beaten path," Weintraub says. "So one would think that a company as large as Facebook would be monitoring [the] search engine results page for a major query surrounding their services."
Google data shows that the term "Facebook customer service" is searched an average of roughly 27,000 times every month in the U.S.
This is a sizable figure according to Weintraub, who says that the company should have been aware of it "almost the first minute" it happened and should have guarded its users.
"I'd be so scared," he says. "These are people who are looking for help with the product and they're getting scammed. OMG."
NPR notified Facebook and Google of the scam line.
Facebook responded that it has been investigating the group associated with the number for some time, that the group is attacking several platforms, and that it is Google's responsibility to explain why it shows certain search results.
A Google spokesperson stated that the company has taken action to remove the fraudulent number.
Neither company provided an explanation for how the search result went unnoticed.
For the record, Facebook does not have a phone number for users to call. Instead, it has an online help center.