Hacker controls CA man's Facebook account, scams his friends; why Meta didn't stop it

ByRenee Koury and Stephanie Sierra KGO logo
Thursday, May 23, 2024
Facebook lets hacker control man's account, scam his friends
A Berkeley widower's Facebook account was hijacked last summer. Ten months later, the imposter was still in control and scamming his friends.

BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Attorneys general across the country are demanding Meta do something about hackers taking over Facebook and Instagram accounts. The attorneys general say they have become a de facto customer service to resolve Meta takeovers. Among the victims: a Berkeley widower whose Facebook was hijacked last summer. Ten months later, the imposter was still in control and scamming his friends.

7 On Your Side first introduced this story in February: Richard Links was grieving the loss of his beloved wife Cathryn last July when a scammer swept in to make money.

VIDEO: Bay Area man lost his wife, then got scammed. Now Facebook won't stop the hacker

A grieving Northern California husband found a hacker locked his Facebook account and began taking GoFundMe donations in his late wife's memory.

"It brings up a lot of anger, that someone could be so evil and heartless," Links said. "Stomp on me why don't you, and rub your dirty heels all over me."

The hacker had taken control of Links's Facebook page, pretending to be Links raising money for Cathryn's funeral, using a photo of her smiling face.

More shocking: Links and his friends reported the imposter to Facebook. It did nothing. Automated responses said: "the account meets all community standards" and "isn't pretending to be you" - which was infuriating.

"It was so exploitative, to exploit a widower in his moment of grief," said Elizabeth Bernstein, a friend of Links. "We were never talking to a person. Complaints go to an algorithm, the algorithm spits out a reply saying there's nothing wrong"

Months later, the hacker was still controlling Links' account -- now pretending the widower was selling his cars.

"No, that's not me, and oh my God here we go again," said Links.

MORE: Card skimmers draining Bay Area residents' EBT benefits: Here's what to know

Eric Theise saw the offer and thought it was really Links selling his cars.

"So I asked him what kind of mileage it got," Theise told 7 On Your Side. "I was expecting to go to Richard's house and look over this thing."

Theise didn't realize he was messaging a hacker.

"Hi Richard, I'm interested in learning more about the Infiniti for sale..." Theise said, showing the message thread with the hacker.

Theise had no idea the cars shown on the site were only photos and video clips of cars, not real vehicles for sale.

He agreed to pay Links a $500 deposit, but became suspicious when it came to his insistence to be paid by Zelle.

MORE: Americans older than 60 lost $3.4 billion to scams in 2023: FBI

"There was this hesitation and at that point I said, 'Remind me how we know each other?' " Theise said.

The imposter replied, "That's Cathryn, my wife charity Zelle."

"So at that point I decided it was a scam," Theise said.

Links' friend Gregory Morgan also saw the car-for-sale offer, and didn't realize he was bargaining with an imposter. "I thought it was really Links at first," he said. "It was Richard Links' picture, and there was no reason to think it wasn't Richard Links.'

"I will tell you I really think that I got suckered in hook, line and sinker, you know?" Morgan said.

Morgan agreed to pay a $200 deposit for a Honda -- thankfully PayPal blocked the payment. So did Venmo. Turns out PayPal and Venmo had blocked the hackers' accounts as fraud -- even though Facebook did not.

MORE: Reformed Nigerian scammer describes how he swindled $70,000 from Bay Area victims

"So I said call me, so we can discuss this," Morgan said.

The scammer then replied: "You don't trust me... you just made me feel unwanted... we are friends, like brothers. - OMG don't make me remember my wife I'm going to cry."

"I feel really lucky I didn't lose money in the process but at the same time it was also very scary that someone can take over an account," Morgan said.

Both friends tried to report the fraud, but there was no phone number to call. Facebook's automated system took a report but that went nowhere. Weeks later, no action.

The scammer kept selling the fake cars.

7 On Your Side contacted Meta and this time a spokesperson responded and provided a special reset code for Links.

MORE: CA woman tricked into putting $20K in box, handing it to complete stranger

And it worked. After nearly a year, the scammer was gone; Links' got his account back.

"I feel like ten tons of weight is lifted off me. It is triumphant. Triumphant!" Links said. "Thank you to ABC7, 7 On Your Side.

However, reset codes aren't available to the general public. Meta referred users to the same automated "help" link that took Links and his friends in circles with no results. Victims of account takeovers have been reporting the same frustration for years.

Meta said in part :

"We know that losing and recovering access to your online accounts can be a frustrating experience. We invest heavily in designing account security systems to help prevent account compromise in the first place, and educating our users, including by regularly sharing new security features and tips for how people can stay safe and vigilant against potential targeting by hackers. But we also know that bad actors, including scammers, target people across the internet and constantly adapt to evade detection by social media platforms like ours, email and telecom providers, banks and others. To detect malicious activity and help protect people who may have gotten compromised via email phishing, malware or other means, we also constantly improve our detection, enforcement and support systems, in addition to providing channels where people can report account access issues to us, working with law enforcement and taking legal action against malicious groups."

The attorneys general of 38 states including California asked for immediate action to mitigate account takeovers saying: "We refuse to operate as the customer service representatives of your company."

Meta said it is working with several of the attorneys general to answer concerns -- but did not reveal any concrete actions.

Take a look at more stories and videos by 7 On Your Side.

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