Concerned by the prevalence of so-called "romance scams" initiated or perpetrated via Facebook, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger is asking for more action to protect users.
Kinzinger, R-Channahon, was prompted to send a letter to Facebook's Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, requesting an update about his company's efforts to improve the safety and security of its platform, and that of its users. According to a New York Times article, Kinzinger was moved to take action after reading an article about swindlers impersonating service members online, luring victims into false relationships and stealing their savings.
"As a combat veteran currently serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, I am particularly concerned with the pernicious efforts to impersonate current or former military personnel to gain the trust of unsuspecting users and ultimately convince them to transfer money," Kinzinger wrote in the letter dated July 31 and published Thursday by the New York Times.
"These crimes result in a variety of consequences, including financial and emotional harm to victims as well as stolen identities and stolen valor for the impersonated service members and veterans."
Kinzinger's no stranger to social media imposters.
In the article, he referenced a 2015 incident in which a woman from India flew to Rockford to meet Kinzinger, waiting at his constituent office inside a bus station. She said she developed a relationship with him on Facebook.
“She waited around in that bus station for two weeks for me to show up, and I didn’t,” he told the newspaper. “She’s a poor lady, too. It took all her money to fly from India to me.”
And that's not the only incident. He noted dozens of women contacted him or others on his staff claiming they were in a relationship with him, with a second woman from India saying she sent one of the imposters roughly $10,000.
"My staff and I find various accounts posing as me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Hangouts or other platforms," Kinzinger wrote. ... "We are able to report these fraudulent accounts quickly, all things considered, but that may not be the case for others – many unsuspecting victims would not even think to search for their image on Google or other social media platforms as my staff does routinely."
In a Tweet Thursday, Kinzinger wrote: "For nearly a decade, I’ve dealt w/ countless fake accounts using my photos to scam others. It wasn’t until recently that I learned how widespread this issue has become. There needs to be accountability here and I’ve asked Facebook for answers."
The congressman stressed he's not seeking special accommodations or sympathy by sharing some of his personal experiences, he's merely pointing out how widespread the problem is and that many who are scammed don't have the time or resources to keep themselves safe.
“There needs to be accountability for this issue that can, quite frankly, destroy lives,” Kinzinger wrote in the letter. “Facebook has an immensely significant role to play in getting this situation under control.”
Aside from asking Zuckerberg to respond to several questions – some new, some lingering from from the CEO's testimony to Congress in April 2018 – Kinzinger called on him to further expand the company's protection efforts.
"Unfortunately, it seems Facebook is having significant difficulty stemming the tide of malign activity that has rapidly and persistently permeated the platform," Kinzinger wrote, further requesting a response by Wednesday, Aug. 14.
Kinzinger also is in the early stages of drafting legislation that would force social media companies to do more to protect against fraud. However, Kinzinger told the New York Times it was too early to publicly discuss details about the legislation, however, he mentioned several measures Facebook could take to stop fraudsters, including using facial recognition software to automatically spot impostors and requiring identification to create an account.
“There has to be a place for government to step in and have penalties,” he said in the article. “I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but it has to be something.”
Some of the questions Kinzinger has asked Zuckerberg include:
– How many individuals are currently employed by Facebook to address safety and security?
– In your estimation, how many fake profiles are created each day? Further, how many fake profiles do you estimate exist on the platform today?
– Advertisers will now need to confirm their ID and location before being able to run any ads with political content in the US; why has Facebook not implemented a similar set of criteria for individual users seeking to create accounts?
– In light of plans to unveil Libra, a new cryptocurrency, what actions would Facebook take to detect an police against attempts to defraud other users of the platform?
A Facebook spokeswoman told the New York Times that the company was reviewing Kinzinger’s letter and that it looked forward to answering his questions.