Scammers posing as Canadian immigration lawyers have targeted Facebook groups with tens of thousands of users, a new report reveals.
The posts, documented in a new report by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), the research arm of watchdog group the Campaign for Accountability, have been flagged as potentially fraudulent by Latin American and Canadian authorities but continue to proliferate.
Purporting to be authored by Canadian immigration lawyers, the posts claim that Canada is recruiting more than 400,000 people for a jobs program that will grant those accepted an immediate work permit.
The scam offers to help migrants apply for the program and obtain a visa, and requires them to enter sensitive personal information on websites before prompting them to share the link with 15 friends via WhatsApp to access any visa or immigration information.
The “invite friends” link opens WhatsApp and automatically populates the app with a message that closely mirrors the original scam post, according to screenshots reviewed by the Guardian.
The users are ultimately not provided with any helpful immigration information after sending the link.
The posts have been shared in at least 12 Facebook groups with followings ranging between 2,700 and nearly 190,000 users. The groups had at least 570,000 users in total, according to TTP.
Canadian and Honduran officials issued warnings about the scam on their respective Facebook pages as early as February. “This is fake and is related to possible ‘phishing’,” a translation of a post by the Honduran national police reads. “Don’t trust everything that is shared on social networks, you may provide confidential information and be a victim of manipulation.”
The engagement on the posts the Guardian reviewed varied, but many had several commenters asking for more information. One post shared in a Facebook group with more than 48,000 followers in March had 430 comments, 11 shares and 184 likes. Some Facebook users said they were interested, listed their experience and asked for more information while others warned that the website didn’t lead anywhere. “Hello, I am an electrician and I also manage agriculture and livestock. I’ll sign up if there is a vacancy,” one comment read.
After the Guardian reached out to Facebook, the social media company removed three posts and the groups sharing the information for violating the company’s policies, according to a Facebook spokesperson, Erin McPike.
“We are committed to stopping scam attempts, and we encourage users to report suspicious content to us,” McPike told the Guardian. “TTP didn’t share their findings with us before sharing it with the press, but we will review the report when we see it and continue to remove content that breaks our rules.”
On WhatsApp, the company limits how often a message can be forwarded, allowing messages that have already been forwarded once to only be shared with one group at a time, she said. McPike further pointed the Guardian to the company’s stance on “prevalence”, or how often posts are seen, which it considers a critical measurement for determining the impact of harmful content.
Another company leveraged to perpetuate the scam, URL shortener TinyURL, terminated a link during an early version of the scam, saying it violated the terms of service prohibiting use of the platform to spread spam, malware or defraud other people.
Some of the scam sites were registered to a person in Massachusetts who owned other websites flagged for phishing by Google and blocked on Chrome, TTP investigators said. Attempts to send these links via Gmail also resulted in the message being blocked. The scam links advertising the Canadian recruitment program were not flagged in Chrome, however.
Previous reports from TTP indicate misinformation targeting migrants in Latin America is being disseminated on various platforms, including TikTok and Facebook. Verifying or validating misinformation on Facebook, TTP’s director, Katie Paul, argues, can be difficult largely because the platform has become so ubiquitous in those places.
When Facebook launched its controversial Free Basics program, which provides users with access to a handful of applications free of charge, the app became critical infrastructure.
“Many people who couldn’t afford wifi or or otherwise afford data would only have Facebook,” said Paul. “So it’s not like you could Google something to confirm your findings or do your own research because you only have access to the app.”
TTP and other experts argue that one of the remedies for content moderation issues related to migrant misinformation is for platforms to deploy more human moderators.
To combat misinformation in Latin American countries, platforms should not only employ Spanish-speaking moderators, but specialists in the languages of the continent’s various areas, said Nilda Garcia, a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M International University who studies the way criminal networks and Mexican drug cartels use social media. “In order for you to understand what [the scammers] are doing, you need to understand the language and the way we speak in the north, for example, is different,” Garcia said. Deploying such language experts, Garcia said, would help alleviate risks of taking down posts that are intended to genuinely help people seeking to migrate to the US or Canada, she said.
Paul, the TTP director, also suggested that companies like Facebook should include misinformation warnings akin to those included on posts discussing Covid-19 to help people find authoritative sources. “We don’t see any of that kind of fact-checking or misinformation labels that link to authoritative websites if something mentions travel or migration,” Paul said.
The company said it removes content in Spanish when independent experts warn that it is false and can contribute to immediate physical harm or is highly deceptive or intended to suppress voting. In all other cases of misinformation, Facebook focuses on limiting its distribution, McPike said. The company also issues warning labels when a factchecker rates a post as false, she said.
Finally, Paul said, Facebook should invest more in moderators with subject matter and human expertise because the technology is still not “able to distinguish between misinformation and real [posts to] ensure that the information people are receiving is from an authoritative source,” she said.