An elaborate scam is tricking social media users into thinking they inadvertently funded terrorist organizations — then milking the victims for money to make the problem go away, authorities say.
The scam operates in two parts, according to a fraud alert warning sent out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general on Monday.
First, the scammer makes friends with the victim over Words with Friends, Facebook Messenger or another phone-based app that has a chat feature. In other cases the scammers use online chat rooms or dating platforms to strike up a romantic bond with the victim, the inspector general said. Once the victim trusts the scammer, the scammer convinces the victim to send some money to help his or her new “friend” cope with some “minor hardship.”
Part two of the scam begins the day after that money transfer, federal officials said: That’s when someone involved in the scam calls the victim posing as a law enforcement officer, using a spoofed law enforcement organization phone number to make the call appear legitimate.
“The fraudster tells the victim that the funds they provided the day before went to a criminal organization or terrorist group,” federal officials said, listing examples such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaida.
The supposed law enforcement contact then “threatens them with arrest and imprisonment,” federal officials said.
Next, the scammers point the victim to a “lawyer” who can help fix the problem — and that “lawyer” asks the victim to cough up $1,000 or more as a “retainer” fee to clear up the whole thing. Federal officials said the money is requested “via check, wire transfer, or other methods.”
The inspector general’s office said it “takes this matter very seriously.”
“While we investigate the situation, we remind the public that law enforcement and other U.S. Government numbers may be subject to spoofing,” authorities said. “Individuals receiving phone calls from these numbers should not provide any personal information. Legitimate law enforcement callers will never ask you to pay fines over the phone or request money from you.”
Anyone who suspects he or she has been targeted in the scam is asked to call the department’s hotline at 800-323-8603, or to file an online complaint at www.oig.dhs.gov.
Facebook and Zynga, the company that runs Words with Friends, did not immediately respond to request for comment on Monday.