NBC 5 Responds

Social Media Takeovers: As New Scam Emerges, Here's Why Some Users May Never Get Their Accounts Back

NBC Universal, Inc.

Social media account hackings or takeovers have increased dramatically since 2020, and NBC 5 Responds has found a key differentiating factor between users who get their accounts back, and others who do not.

Thieves are flocking to social media platforms now more than ever, and if you’re not careful, you could be frozen out of your account.

Depending on what kind of user you are online may make the difference on whether you can get your account back.

NBC 5 Responds has been covering a rise in social media account takeovers in the last year, impacting thousands of users online.

And now, new numbers recently released are defining the trend.

In the “2021 Trends in Identity” report from the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), the non-profit found a 1,044% increase in reports of social media account takeovers by bad actors, from the years 2020 to 2021. 

The ITRC calls it an “emerging scamdemic,” with identity thieves flocking to social media profiles, leading to the highest number of personal identifiable information (PII) exposures from the accounts many use every day.

Startling statistics from the Identity Theft Resource Center's 2021 "Trends in Identity" report, detailing the damaging trend of social media account hacks or takeovers.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many users have said once their accounts were hacked into, they had no way of getting it back.

Recently, two Facebook/Meta users in the Chicago area contacted NBC 5 Responds, desperate for help.

At first blush, both users appeared to have much in common: Their pages were recently hacked, locking them out from years’ worth of memories, photos, and contact information for their family and friends. 

But after inquiring on their behalf, only one user was able to get back into her account.

The different outcomes may be chalked up to two pivotal words: Business account.

“I just never thought it would happen to me,” Koren Utley told NBC 5 Responds after her Facebook account was taken over by hackers in July.

Koren’s Facebook account served two purposes: Connecting with friends and family, but also for her life coaching business.

Koren said her repeated attempts to contact Facebook for help had gone nowhere.

After NBC 5 Responds got in touch with Facebook staff, Koren successfully got back into her account.

But our same attempts to help another user, public school teacher Tracy Aleckson, went nowhere.

“Why would someone want to hack a Facebook account?” Aleckson asked. “I was so incredibly frustrated. You have this billion-dollar company, and no way to contact them. 

After NBC 5 Responds contacted Facebook for comment, the company helped Utley gain access to her hacked account, but did not help Aleckson.

The company did not respond to NBC 5’s questions or requests for comment.

The reason NBC 5 Responds’ inquiry helped Utley, but had no effect for Aleckson, may be chalked up to the fact that Utley had previously purchased Facebook advertisements for her life coaching business. 

Tracy had not made any purchases from Facebook.

The realization that not all users are treated equally is no surprise to cybersecurity analysts, like Alex Hamerstone of TrustedSec.

“It’s important for everybody to remember: If you’re not paying for something, you’re absolutely the product.” Hamerstone said.

Hamerstone is not suggesting that we all buy ads, rather we need to understand the playing field, one that is growing riskier, day by day.

Analysts say the most common way for hackers to take over accounts is through social engineering techniques, through direct messages or by sending links that you should never click on.

Still, many users feel social media companies play a role in protecting their identities.

"You should not have to have a business account to be protected by Facebook,” Utley said. Ever since getting her account back since the latest hacking, Utley said she’s mostly stayed off of social media.

“I don't post as much as I used to,” Utley said. “I honestly have lost the joy of sharing on Facebook to be honest with you. "

Protecting Your Social Media Account From Attacks

Many of the ways NBC 5 found to protect your social media accounts are preventative measures to take before anything like this takes place.

It all centers around your digital hygiene.  

Strengthen Your Password

The Identity Theft Resource Center recommends using a strong and unique password, up to 12 characters or longer.

“Don't use a password that you've used on any other accounts,” Velasquez said. “It can be a passphrase or something that you'll easily remember.”

Also, setting up a two-factor authentication for profile changes, like passwords, can alert you to an account invasion, and prevent hackers from getting in.

Back-Up Your Photos and Information

Another important point to consider is storing your information in more than one place.

Having photos and other information you may need saved somewhere other than your account may help in the event something happens to your profile.

“Do a health check of your social media accounts,” Velasquez said. “Make sure that you don't have data, photographs, contacts and things stored only [on your social media account] so that if the worst does happen, you have backups.”

For the really meaningful photos, videos and important information, it’s also recommended to store those back-ups separate from your device.

“If you only have your photos stored on Facebook, get a thumb drive, get a hard drive, store them somewhere else, so that you have a copy if something happens to that account,” Velasquez recommends. “It will definitely make it less traumatic if you aren't able to get the account back.”

Are You Eligible For ‘Facebook Protect’?

Some Facebook users are eligible for what’s called Facebook Protect, an enhanced security feature that the company rolled out this past March.

Facebook Protect adds more security to a user’s account, including two-factor authentication and extra screenings by staff for hacking threats.

This feature is not available for all users. The company’s website said it is a “security program for groups of people that are more likely to be targeted by malicious hackers, such as human rights defenders, journalists, and government officials."

It’s unclear whether Facebook plans to roll out the feature more widely.

To learn more about Facebook Protect and whether you’re eligible to use it, click here.

If Your Account Is Already Hacked, What Can You Do?

Many Facebook users that contacted NBC 5 for help said their attempts to get through to Facebook for assistance after their accounts were hacked into were futile.

This has been noticed too by cybersecurity experts.

“They don't have dedicated customer service. You cannot actually speak to a person,” Velasquez said. “That's fine when everything is going well. But when there is fraud or a significant dispute, that creates a real problem.”

Users are encouraged by the company to visit this webpage to try and get their account back.

If your profile is a business account, or is used for your business, be sure to emphasize that when reaching out to Facebook for help. This can expedite a response on Facebook’s end.

More helpful information from Facebook can be found here.  

Free Resources For Help 

Experts also say users shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed if this happens to them.

“We really want to encourage people not to be embarrassed or ashamed, not to think they should know or understand these things and to get help if they need it,” Velasquez said. “This is a really complicated space and not everyone can know everything about it.”

To learn more about the Identity Theft Resource Center, including how to access its many free services and guidance, click here or call 1-888-400-5530

Have a consumer complaint? Call 1-844-NBC-RESP or click here to let us know, so we can help.

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