New predators are stalking older women via chat in online games. Our Chief Strategy Officer explains what’s going on and how to protect yourself and your family.
By Brad Berens
My mother is nobody’s fool. She is also such a fan of the online Scrabble knockoff “Words with Friends” (WWF) that I might use the word addiction to describe her relationship with the game and only be exaggerating a smidge.
During a recent visit, Mom shared an odd experience she had while playing that turned out to be a new kind of scam.
Players of WWF can trade instant messages with opponents during each match, so there’s a social component to the game. In separate matches over a few weeks, not one, not two, but three different opponents claimed to be widowed engineers working aboard ships on the high seas. As each match proceeded, the man (often named Owen) would share that his wife had died in childbirth, and that his daughter was being raised by a cousin or a nurse while he worked aboard ship.
Here’s a stitched-together screenshot of one such conversation:
The conversation turned creepy the moment Owen asks my mother how tall she is. So even without the red-flag repetition of the same script across three different people, she was skeptical.
“What do I do?” she asked me.
I showed Mom how to block a player on WWF.
Then we put our deerstalker detective hats on: a few minutes of energetic Googling turned up a long thread on the Zynga user forum about this scam. (Zynga is the company that created WWF.)
How the scam works
“Owen” (or whoever) strikes up a casual conversation with what he hopes is a lonely, older, female WWF player. As time and many matches go by, Owen tells the woman player his life story, asks dozens of questions about her life and tastes, and talks romantically with her.
Eventually, after months, catastrophe strikes Owen. His daughter needs an operation that costs $20,000, but Owen is stuck aboard a ship of the coast of Turkey, or some other remote place. Owen then asks the woman player for money.
This is a classic long con.
It might seem beyond belief that anybody would ever fall for this, but innocent people have been falling for the Nigerian Prince scam for years and to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The WWF scam is newer, but it has already claimed at least one victim: a New Zealand woman lost $60,000 over the course of months to a con artist.
How to protect yourself or a loved one
Here are some simple best practices to follow in order to keep scam artists at a distance:
1. Don’t play online games with people you don’t know in real life.
Even if, like my mother, you’re a skilled WWF player who is running out of challenging opponents, if you don’t know who the person on the other side of the screen is in real life, then don’t play.
2. If you do play with strangers — and you shouldn’t — then don’t share personal information.
Be skeptical: don’t tell a stranger where you live, how old you are, what you do for a living, what music you like, what TV shows you watch.
The more questions a stranger asks you — flattering though they might be — the more suspicious you should become.
3. Change your profile picture.
At one point, my mother’s profile picture showed her standing next to my 17 year-old daughter, who is very pretty. (I admit that I’m biased.) That picture provoked many WWF players to flirt with my mother, as they were hoping that the player was the granddaughter rather than the grandma.
I helped Mom change the profile picture to one of just her, but the new picture functioned as bait for the scammers, who seem to presume that older women playing WWF are lonely and susceptible to pretended attention and affection.
We then changed Mom’s profile picture to one of my dog, an adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Ace. So far, nobody has tried to scam the pup.
4. Never send money to people you don’t know.
5. If you’re tempted to send money to a stranger — and you shouldn’t do it — ask a friend or family member for a sanity check.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in somebody’s story, but if you find yourself tempted to send money to a stranger — even if it’s just a little — ask for help.
Call your best friend or your skeptical relative and ask, “does this seem legit to you?”
If you’re too embarrassed to do this, then you probably already suspect that the person who wants the money isn’t who he claims to be.
6. When in doubt: research
If you’re too embarrassed to ask a person for help, then visit myth-busting sites like Snopes.com or simply copy a chunk of text from the chat session, paste it into Google and hit “return.”
You’ll be surprised by how quickly information pops up that will detach you from acting on a really bad idea.
Conclusion: the scariest thing of all
When I imagine where Owen is sitting as he is having this fraudulent conversation with my mother, the most likely scenario is that he is in boiler room surrounded by other men all staring intently into their computer monitors and having dozens of similar conversations with other innocent women all at the same time.
This is one reason why Owen and his ilk almost never use the first names of their intended victims, preferring “my dear” or “honey” or the like: they don’t want to blow it and address “Mary” as “Sally.”
The boiler room is scary enough, but even scarier is the idea that instead of a room full of sweaty guys, maybe Owen is a bot.
If Owen is a rudimentary AI that is following a complex script — including deliberately misspelled words to make the bot seem less botty — then that means that this scam potentially has global scale at what is effectively zero cost to the scammers.
The Centaur Scenario is a little more likely and still scary. “Centaur” is science writer Clive Thompson’s term for a collaboration between people and programs that turns out to be more effective than either humans or bots alone.
In this scenario, bots would start the games and initiate the chats with the intended victims. Then, when the victim started to engage in conversation, the bot would hand the victim over to a human con artist.
There’s an old New Yorker cartoon, “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” That’s true, and as AI gets more sophisticated it is becoming harder to tell whether the “person” you’re chatting with is even a mammal.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the being trying to scam you while playing WWF is a person, program or combination.
What matters is that you protect yourself and your loved ones.
Brad Berens is the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer.
See all columns from the Center.
September 26, 2018