The old saying goes that seeing is believing. Well, sometimes seeing can be deceiving.
By now we’re all familiar with the dangers to our personal and financial security lurking within social media and email. But you’d think a face-to-face digital conversation over a video call would be safe from identity theft.
Con men operating out of Monaco have recently been caught impersonating Prince Albert II over WhatsApp video calls in order to fool people into giving them money. It seems they too have heard the “seeing is believing” adage and abused that human trait to make their schemes more believable.
Video conferencing crimes like these are a warning that no digital communication is 100% safe–even when you’re looking the perpetrator right in the face. Alarm bells should start ringing any time a stranger asks you for money, but as video calling becomes more commonplace and the interactions more lifelike, it’s hard not to lower your guard online.
Video Conferencing Crimes Via Impersonation
The Prince Albert impostor made initial contact with his intended victims over social media messaging. From there he escalated exchanges to the point that a phony prince took live video calls from inside a fake palace, asking for money to free a kidnapped journalist.
If you’ve used a social media messaging app recently you’ll be familiar with that conversational pathway–although, hopefully, not with that destination. Over recent years, all the major messaging apps, the ones that claim hundreds of millions of users, have moved to add video calling to their platforms. Facebook Messenger took it to the extreme by allowing up to 50 people to share a group video chat at once, but WhatsApp, Snapchat, and WeChat have all joined the video call club. In most cases, it’s just an add-on to the main messaging service, but some have made an effort to add something more to the online experience–such as Kik’s ability to let you multitask during a video call.
Each of these apps is designed to let users move their conversation from an informal text to an intimate face-to-face call within seconds–and that’s the weak point the Monaco scammers exploited.
The Danger of the Chat Room
The practice of catfishing has become so common there’s now a TV show dedicated to the deception. Essentially, someone uses the mask of social chat to hide their identity and cheat a trusting contact out of their private information–or just to string them along for laughs.
These would-be impostors need an initial point of contact, however, and open forum chat rooms are a common place to start. In a bid to cover every facet of a user’s online social life, some video conferencing apps include such open forums in their platform. We at VC Daily have sometimes pointed out these public spaces as potential dangers in our reviews of apps. The public space where users share streaming movies on Rabbit is one, and the ‘discover’ function within Tango is another.
Of course, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with starting a friendship through an anonymous chat room, and VC Daily has also argued that elevating the relationship to video before meeting in person is actually safer in many instances–especially online dating. You’ve got to be aware though, that entering a public chat room so closely linked to your personal profile is a risk. Yet, there are ways of keeping safe online.
Keeping Safe During a Video Call
The first and most obvious way to keep yourself out of trouble in any form of online communication is to avoid giving out any personal details. This includes passwords for any of your social accounts and details of your real-world address. As you would in your day-to-day life, it’s also advisable to let your friends know a bit about the people you’re in regular contact with online. Video calling itself offers a few unique threats because of its visual nature. It’s a good idea to:
- Be aware of your surroundings and what information they convey.
- Be aware of where your name is listed (there is software available that can match your face to an online database).
- Look for a webcam with a physical shutter since external webcams and built-in laptop cameras can be remotely accessed and operated.
- Where possible, use a video chat app that includes lockable meetings to prevent eavesdroppers.
- Always log out of a video chat room when a call is done.
In hindsight, scams like the Prince Albert attack always seem silly and obvious. Don’t discount your susceptibility to the power of a face-to-face conversation, however. We’re visual creatures, and nothing entices the eye like another person’s face.
And remember: Prince Albert is a billionaire so he’s unlikely to need to borrow a few bucks from you.