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Do I Know You? Fake Friends Adding Fresh Danger To Facebook

Facebook Friend Request Spam

First Posted: 02/10/11 05:45 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:30 PM ET

Back in a more innocent age, a Facebook friend bore at least some resemblance to an actual friend: They were real people with real identities with whom one had some connection in real life. But the online "friends" who populate Facebook are increasingly not who they say they are. Indeed, some are not even real human beings, but merely malevolent online creations.

Facebook has distinguished itself from competing social networks by requiring that members use their actual identities, a stipulation that has created both an aura of intense connection and a sense of safety, helping Facebook to grow into a $50-billion behemoth with 550 million members. Breaking from a tendency toward anonymity in online interactions, Facebook made a visionary choice to engage real people who have offered up the intimate details of their lives. The site's policies specifically prohibit "impersonating anyone or anything" and mandate usernames with "a clear connection to one's identity."

The rule has not always been strictly enforced -- there have always been a number of accounts belonging to pets, babies, even stuffed animals. But this founding principle now seems increasingly at risk, and with it, Facebook's attempts to encourage greater sharing, woo ad dollars and remain the primary destination for socializing on the Internet. In recent months, Facebook users have reported inboxes flooded with a growing volume of spam friend requests from unknown individuals with unlikely names, stock photos and sparse profiles: ghost accounts that belong to computers, not people.

The extent of the problem is difficult to quantify, even for Facebook. Yet this apparent uptick in spam -- which has been a problem since inception -- suggests a potentially-growing fraction of the site's members have sham identities that are being used to extract personal information from legitimate users, say social media experts.

In addition to being a nuisance and possible security threat, these fake accounts undermine the values that have helped Facebook to become the world's most popular social network.

"It makes it very hard to trust people on Facebook because anyone can create a fake account," said Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, a security firm. "These days the only way tell if a Facebook friend request came from someone you actually know is to ring them up and say, 'Hey, did you send me a Facebook friend request?'"

The problem is a particularly thorny one for Facebook as the company attempts to encourage its users to share more liberally with one another and with the web at large. Why return regularly to a site regularly peppered with scams, spurious deals, or even viruses? Posting photos, updates and real-time data on one's whereabouts becomes far less appealing when the information runs the risk of being used by hackers.

So just who are the puppeteers controlling these proliferating fake Facebook friends? And can they be stopped?

Next: Who's Friending? [NOTE: Have you had problems arising from accepting friend requests from fake or unknown accounts? Let us know: email]