Facing down the threat of scams through social media

05 November 2018

Three billion people, or 40% of the global population, now use social media. It has become one of the dominant ways in which people communicate around the world.

However, as social media usage grows, concerns have risen about how it can be used for exploitative purposes. The use of social media to spread misinformation or promote intolerance is a major concern for many government and regulators. However, there are also concerns about how social media platforms can be used to spread e-commerce scams and other unfair trading practices, either through posts or through misleading adverts placed on social media.

A global survey of consumers found that 81% consider cybercriminals as the biggest source of concern when using the internet. Common social media scams include impersonating a friend, fake reviews, diverting consumers to phishing sites, fraudulent sales and gathering personal data.

The open nature of social media provides plenty of information for would-be scammers to exploit and gain the victims’ trust. It’s getting increasingly easy for scammers to imitate legitimate brands and entice consumers with offers that are too good to be true.

Beyond losing money and trust in participating in online spaces, victims of scams can also feel ashamed and have long-term mental health impacts. 

Despite the prevalence of online scams and the harm it can cause to consumers, there has been surprisingly little research into the phenomenon of social media ecommerce scams.

We’ve previously highlighted the case of a Danish company, LuxStyle, a subscription trap that demanded payment for beauty products that consumers didn’t knowingly purchase and even referred consumers to debt-collection agencies. There are countless other cases of social media scams affecting consumers in different regions of the world we want to understand and prevent.

A growing problem

Because of the growing international risk being reported by our members, Consumers international is working with a global social media research agency called ‘We Are Social’ to better understand social media e-commerce scams affecting consumers across English, Spanish and Arabic countries and will be launching the findings at an international convening of key stakeholders in December 2018.

Early findings indicate both similarities and differences in relation to the types of scams that are discussed online in different countries, and consumers’ reactions. The research suggests there are lessons to be learnt in terms of engagement with consumers on this issue, including good practices by enforcement agencies and brands to warn consumers.

Preliminary insights from interviews with enforcement agencies, our members and digital experts are highlighting what more can be done to protect consumers. The use of technology to better identify and remove scams and stop perpetrators reposting under a different name; providing consumers with more information about scams that they may come across, better identifying scams, and enhancing reporting tools are all ways to reduce the risk from social media scams.

Building an international network

All of these issues will be explored in-depth at our international convening in December 2018 and will contribute to the publication of a Consumers International report on the state of protection for consumers from social media scams, with recommendations for improving trust and safety of e-commerce on social media.

Innovative and effective measures for tackling scams - including those being undertaken in other sectors, such as online banking and telecoms - could potentially be applied to building safer online spaces for consumers.

That is why we are interested to hear more from consumer organisations, academics, companies and consumer protection authorities about the sort of social media e-commerce scams that consumers are experiencing in their counties, and what solutions are being developed.

We will be publishing our findings in early 2019 so please get in contact as soon as possible to find out more.