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WhatsApp ‘friend in need’ scam

Have you received a message from a friend or family member, saying that they’re in trouble? Does it all sound a little bit strange? You might have fallen victim to the ‘Friend in need’ scam - the latest phishing scam that’s leaving people out of pocket.

What is the ‘Friend in need’ scam?

The ‘Friend in need’ scam is a phishing scam that has recently been doing the rounds on WhatsApp, however, it has also been seen on other chat applications and social networking websites such as Facebook, and Instagram. This scam has proved incredibly lucrative; according to Action Fraud, £50,000 has been lost to the WhatsApp scam in the last three months. 

Initially, the scammer can request a verification code for the victim’s account, then message the victim directly pretending to be a friend, and say they sent them the code by mistake. When the victim gives the scammer the code, they can then access the victim’s WhatsApp, which can then be used to either blackmail the victim, or scam further victims.

Once the phisher gains access to a person’s WhatsApp, they can use it to get in touch with their contacts with an emergency. This is usually an emergency which requires the recipient to send money across, or personal information. Once the recipient sends the money or their details across, the phisher disappears - or in some cases, may keep pushing for more and more money until the victim gets suspicious.

Why the ‘Friend in need’ scam is so effective

The ‘Friend in need’ scam is unlike the kinds of phishing scams that people are used to. Usually, the phisher will pretend to be a stranger, a new love interest, a business or a service - not someone we already have an established relationship with. The ‘Friend in need’ scam exploits the relationship victims have with their friends and family, and it works - victims are less likely to ask questions or be suspicious, and more likely to send over the funds.

We’re also used to being on guard when we receive emails asking for personal information, or money, but WhatsApp isn’t usually the setting for these kinds of scams, and as such it is catching people off guard. Receiving a panicked message from a friend over WhatsApp feels more familiar and comfortable than a message over email, and as such we’re more likely to miss the red flags. 

How can you stay safe?

This kind of scam is unique in that the common ways to detect a phisher aren’t applicable. Usually, a hallmark of a phishing scam is frequent spelling mistakes; but we’re used to seeing spelling mistakes in WhatsApp messages. We also can’t be on the lookout for a dodgy email address due to the platform. However, there are a few things we can do to make sure the person you’re speaking to really is a friend in need, and not a scammer in disguise.

If you’ve received a message from a friend or family member who is in trouble, pick up the phone. If the person is who they say they are, and they are asking you for money, there should be no issue with a quick phone call. You can also avoid becoming a victim to one of these scams by never sharing your WhatsApp six-digit pin, and setting up two-factor authentication.

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