YouTube celebrity giveaway scam

When I warn loyal readers of this blog about specific scams they tend to be on Facebook or sometimes WhatsApp, but this time I’m going to tell you about a particularly pernicious scam that’s pulling people in on YouTube.

Scammers have been impersonating popular YouTubers by creating fake accounts which mimic genuine accounts, and sending fans private messages via YouTube. We know this because Philip DeFranco, one of the ‘creators’ whose followers have been targeted by the scammers, posted a warning video.

In it he showed an example of the scam messages, which read: “Hi! Thanks for commenting my videos! I am selecting random subscriber from my subscriber list for gift and you have just won it! Click here to redeem it. Philip DeFranco”. There was obviously a link included.

The scammers exploit the fact that you can send a friend request to anyone who’s on the site. And if you suddenly get a message from a celebrity you avidly follow, you’re probably going to be quite excited and respond quickly, aren’t you, which is what the scammers play on. YouTubers whose accounts have been imitated include James Charles (he who recently brought central Birmingham to a standstill), Jeffree Star and Bhad Bhabie, but many others are believed to have been affected as well.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the fake message highlighted by DeFranco doesn’t sound quite right. In fact, it contains a couple of small grammatical errors. Of course, the message could have been written in haste, but somehow I doubt it. I As I’ve said before, scammers use poor grammar and spelling to screen out the sceptics.

DeFranco reckons that 98.3% of the people who received this message would have worked out that it was a scam, and he’s probably right, but he says he wants to help out the few who didn’t, which is appropriately responsible of him. Mind you, his YouTube channel currently has 6.3 million subscribers and if his guess were to be correct 1.7% of that is still well over 100,000 victims.

Actually, press reports suggest that in the last month or so a ‘mere’ 70,000 people have fallen for this scam, but according to researchers at a cybersecurity company called Risk IQ, this particular scam has been running, with minor variations, since January 2016, so hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people could have fallen for it already.

Yonathan Klijnsma of Risk IQ explains how they know this in a post on the company’s website and his description of their forensic investigations is fascinating. Having delved into the YouTube scam, he says the scammers make their money by selling on the personal information they con out of respondents.

They’re paid what he calls a ‘kick-back’ for each referral. Even if the ‘fee’ the scammers receive for passing on the details of each person – name, address, location, email address – is tiny, the scale of the operation means that their ill-gotten gains quickly mount up.

Needless to say, the promised prize from a celebrity, be it an iPhone or a gift card, never materialises. As for the information that’s been extracted, it will probably find its way onto a suckers’ list and be exploited by criminals specialising in financial fraud.

These giveaways are not for real, so please scrutinise any messages you appear to receive from celebrity YouTubers carefully. If you do a ‘spot the difference’ on the account the message comes from and the YouTuber’s genuine account, you’ll see they’re only superficially the same. But actually, don’t even waste your time doing that. To make sure you don’t fall into Philip DeFranco’s 1.7%, simply never respond unless you’re 100% sure a message is authentic.

Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist and a National Trading Standards Scams Team Scambassador. 

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