Crooks Pose as Celebs on Social Media to Solicit Funds

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360) has received a spate of recent complaints about celebrity impostors:

  • A California woman said her neighbor was getting messages from a man pretending to be Rolling Stones’ front man Mick Jagger and that the victim had sent on money, supposedly for a Jagger charity.
  •  An Illinois man called to say his wife met a celebrity imposter on Kik Messenger, an instant messaging app, and bought and sent on $11,000 worth of cell phones and equipment for the VIP’s “marketing team.”
  • A Virginia caller reported that a relative sent $20,000 to a scammer pretending to be actor Liam Hemsworth, the brother of Chris Hemsworth.
  • A New Jersey woman said she believed she was communicating with a “famous wrestler” and that he had begun asking her to buy him gift cards, help him buy a condo, and reveal her mother’s married and maiden names. The fake wrestler promised marriage, but later reneged, saying he had a wife.

A blue checkmark signifies authenticity

AARP’s Amy Nofziger, who oversees the helpline, advises fans of celebrities to look for a blue checkmark when searching for them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. The checkmark means a public figure’s page or profile is authentic.

Just as important, she says, is to remember that a celebrity’s favored charity should be a tax-exempt 501(c)3. You can vet nonprofits on sites such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar. Keep in mind that a genuine VIP won’t send you a private message to solicit funds, according to Nofziger, who says: “Enjoy your celebrity crushes — we all have them. Just be careful when any ‘celebrity’ says they need your help.”

Criminal cons who pose as celebrities follow a playbook, says Anthony Pratkanis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz. They establish and nurture a relationship with their target before “the ask.” In private messages, the con profiles the target to determine the best approach. If a target is lonely, it’s a romance scam; if they are altruistic, it’s a charity scam.

Since celebrities’ authentic Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts — and countless impostor accounts — are public, fans who post their names and comments may want to think twice. A bad actor can pick up the breadcrumbs and pretend to those who posted comments that they are the actual celeb. Widely available celebrity news — who’s at the Grammy Awards, has a new movie out or is headed to divorce court — lets the phonies gather intel as they play the role of their lives.

The fact that many celebrities are wealthy doesn’t stop impostors from asking for cash, since fraudsters invent excuses about why they supposedly can’t access their funds, Pratkanis says.

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