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Could you spot a scam on social media?

Key Findings

  • Facebook users are concerned about scams on the site, but often feel they have enough knowledge and ability to spot scams and protect themselves.
  • However, in our research, most people misidentified at least one scam as ‘legitimate’ and some didn’t recognise even well-known scams.
  • Users’ false sense of confidence might leave them more at risk of falling victim to a scam.  

Introduction

Social media platforms are increasingly being used by criminals to connect and attempt to scam potential victims. These scams can be ruinous. They can result in financial loss, loss of personal data (and increased risk of future harm as a result) or emotional harm due to having to deal with the stress and hurt of having experienced a scam.

Some social media platforms have introduced tools to try and reduce users’ exposure to scams on their platforms. For instance, Facebook has introduced a scams reporting tool through which users can report suspicious content to Facebook.

However, the success of these measures typically rests on users correctly identifying and then avoiding scam content. Crucially, little is known about users’ behaviour and attitudes towards scams on social media and whether they are sufficiently capable of protecting themselves.

Which? carried out a large research project to understand the attitudes of social media users to scams and their behaviour online. The project enabled Which? to identify limitations to existing protection measures and supported our advocacy on behalf of consumers.

This article summarises some of the findings from that research focussing on our finding of a disconnect between the confidence that people have in their ability to spot scams and their actual capability when tested. Full details of the report can be found at ‘Connecting the world to fraudsters?’.

Methodology

The research featured in this article comes from a 10-day deliberative online community in June 2020. 50 Facebook users were recruited by Roots Research Ltd from their online panel with 46 users completing the research in full.

During the community we explored what social media users thought about scams on social media and their understanding and expectations of what Facebook does to protect them from scams. This was done using a mixture of traditional qualitative research techniques and immersive research tasks, which allowed us to capture participants' 'in-the-moment' responses to scams content.

Concern is high, but not for themselves

We found that while people often expressed concern about scams on social media they tended to feel that the risks scams posed to them as individuals were modest. Instead, social media users were concerned for users they considered to be more vulnerable: older users who may be less savvy using social media and less capable of discerning between scam and genuine content.

“Personally, I have little concern due to the diligence I practice. But I am very concerned that others, such as my mother, would fall victim to these sorts of scam”

This lack of concern for themselves is a result of Facebook users typically considering themselves to have a good awareness of scams and ability to spot them. Most participants (41 out of 48) claimed that they were aware “a great deal” or “a fair amount” that they could be exposed to scams on Facebook; most were also confident they could spot a scam (35 out of 48 rated their confidence in identifying a scam as medium or high).

Confidence in both awareness and abilities is often misplaced

We also found that people have only partial awareness of the breadth, range and sophistication of types of scams that can be found on social media. None of the participants were aware of all types of scam we showed them.

Awareness tended to be lowest for scams likely to lead to the theft of personal data, but substantial numbers of participants failed to identify even some of the more obvious scam types. About a third of participants did not know that fake products might be advertised, while a quarter did not recognise an investment scam using a fake celebrity endorsement.

Alongside this limited awareness, people often exhibit overconfidence in their ability to recognise scam content. We found people with varying levels of self-assessed confidence (high, medium and low) misidentified scam content as legitimate in similar numbers and at similar rates.

Worryingly though, some users were caught out by scams which may well be considered overt or common. For instance, 10 (of 48) of our online community participants did not recognise a scam advert featuring Martin Lewis.

Implications

The research has implications for the ways in which social media users can be protected from scams. Firstly, our insights suggest that if social media users cannot identify a scam they will not be able to report it through appropriate channels, thereby protecting themselves and the community as a whole. This throws the efficacy of scams reporting tools into doubt.

Secondly, individuals’ self-confidence may mean they do not take up safety and security measures which could provide protection from scams. If someone believes their common sense provides adequate protection from scams they may not see a need to turn on features such as two-factor authentication or tailor privacy settings. 

Ultimately, this builds a case for greater use of default measures (e.g. setting high privacy and security settings as standard) to protect consumers. It also supports calls for greater investment in measures that do not over rely on individual users to identify and report scam content.

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email Anna Cordes at consumerinsight@which.co.uk 

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