Friending Strangers On Fakebook

Do you still think you need to be connecting to everyone in Social Media? After Farmville and Mafia Wars, the biggest games on Facebook involve your data.

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(Note: The sequel is now live)

Identity Crises

I’m connected to many different circles of people from different times in my life. I’ve got connections to work, to church, to hobbies, and to places I’ve lived and gone to school. Also, because I spent so many years on the air as a TV reporter, I’m fairly recognized in the area where I live.

When I get requests to connect on Facebook, I can tell pretty much at a glance how I might know someone. If I have 40 mutual friends who are all classmates of mine from Idaho, then I can figure out who it is quickly. If it’s 20 mutual friends all from one of my TV employers, I can also zero in.

I’ve turned down hundreds of requests in the last couple of years, and I’ve been called nasty names for doing so. In all of these instances, it’s been a blind approach from someone I’ve never met, who just happens to be connected to 30 of my friends in the media. It’s clear that they don’t know any of these anchors, reporters, editors or columnists — they are just grabbing as many “local celebrities” as they can. (While I am flattered to be a “local celebrity,” I’m also a little insulted that I would have no value other than being another digit in someone’s online Pokemon collection.) NOTE: If you just say “Hello,” that makes a world of difference.

Maiden names are also an issue. When a friend from high school sends an invitation, with a picture of her kid and an unfamiliar surname in the profile, I can be lost. That’s where the personal introduction can help, and lacking that, the Mutual Friends comparison for context.

Ghosts From My Past

About a year ago, I got a friend request from a woman named Cindy Robertson. I didn’t remember her, but she and I shared more than 30 friends, all of whom were movers and shakers in Birmingham. They were not all media people, so it wasn’t the “Pokemon Syndrome.” I went ahead and added her.

Over time, I noticed she was adding a lot of friends. I’d get notifications that she was friends with 20 more people, all here in Birmingham. Many were friends of mine.

A couple of times, I clicked on her name to see if I could figure out a little more about who she was. Oddly, she never added new links, or commented on other people’s items.

I started to get paranoid, so I created a new Friend List called “UnTrust.” People on my UnTrust list would get even less access than people who weren’t even logged into Facebook. I locked her out of everything I could. Including the list of my friends.

Then I went back through her timeline. All the way back. And in months of activity, I found exactly FOUR times when she made a comment. It was always in response to something another person had placed on her wall, and it always included a little “:)” at the end.

I wondered about who this is, and what he/she is up to.

Project Sherlock

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

I spent some time cataloging what I could of this profile.

The more I saw, the dumber I felt for not seeing it earlier.

But before I outright accused someone of being a fraud, I wanted some other opinions. I reached out to six of my “common friends” with Cindy, and I picked six that I knew didn’t know each other. I asked them if anyone knew her personally, or had met her. And I asked them to look at the profile with the same rigor. Nobody knew her.

I also told them about my UnTrust list, and I’m pretty sure they quickly created that privacy setting for themselves.

I then confronted “Cindy Robertson” through email, Facebook Chat and the Facebook Inbox. I got no answers, but was instead blocked from seeing her profile.

The Evidence

Fortunately, I’d already compiled an archive of screen captures.

Let’s start with that status update:

Her profile does indicate that she likes to run. Look at her personal information. (Remember, these screen caps were taken several months ago, prior to Facebook changing all the rules about “Likes.”)

I found it highly interesting at the time, as she listed “Alabama Football” as an interest, yet went through the entire period from the SEC Championship Game to Alabama’s BCS National Championship without mentioning it at least once.

Let’s look a little closer at her personal life, as reflected in the stream.

Shortly after joining Facebook, Cindy listed herself as single and mentioned her job working for Texas Instruments.

Then she started decorating her downtown Birmingham loft.

Please note the gratuitous use of the smiley-as-period-replacement. We’ll see that again later, such as in this very rare update, indicating a rather masculine pursuit:

A female football fan who doesn’t mention football, but goes hunting instead? There’s really no evidence she was out much of anywhere, save for a couple of Facebook Events she clicked on. (Look at the descriptions of the parties below… tell me if they’re indicative of compatible interests… then hold on to that thought, because we’ll stitch it all together shortly.)

Every Picture Tells a Fiction

Her photo albums were quite revealing.

We’ll start with her good fortune in getting “In a Relationship” even though she’s been hard at work for Texas Instruments, traveling to Atlanta for seminars, going to late night Mayhem with the Naked Eskimos Concerts, followed by another Friday night of Latin dancing.

Or maybe she met her beloved while not watching Alabama football, or while freezing her butt off in the deer stand.

Do you think he sits at the end of her bearskin rug, massaging her feet while she reads him the Cosmo quiz?

No. She’s got to take care of her kids. To the Albums!

That “Kids and Family:)” album shows some promise. What would we find in there?

Looks to me like at least four different children. Not a bad looking brood for a single mom under the age of 30!

Maybe she’s making some side income on the residuals from her children’s pictures.

The one with the happy naked baby wearing the orange and hot-pink knit cap? It’s a stock photo that’s been used on dozens of websites. (Here is the reverse image search from Tin Eye if you haven’t seen enough of him yet.)

If you have any doubt, the boy in the red hat was in kindergarten back in 2002, when this picture was submitted to iStockPhoto by Erick Jones.

Also, why all the pictures in the snow? I’ll buy a trip to see grandma and grandpa up in Buffalo, but how come there’s no indication in any of the pictures about where they were taken? (We didn’t get THAT much snow in Birmingham.)

As an aggregate lie, these little lies add up to at least four children for this under-30 single mom who has time to hunt, date, go to parties and out of town on business. It’s a good thing she’s always on the go, too, because her digs are looking rather sparse.

I’m fairly certain that if you wanted to give Tin Eye another couple of runs at those pictures, you’d find them online elsewhere. I don’t have to. As a reporter, I did several stories about the resurgence of Birmingham’s downtown loft district, and can tell you that none of them look like that. They all take advantage of older architecture, and rustic brick walls. They are beautiful in a historic way, and do not resemble the “Do-it-yourself Surgical Theater” in the IKEA catalog.

The rest of her wall photos (yes, just two of them) are also revealing in their lack of revealing anything.

The generic box might contain “Do-it-yourself Oxygen” from IKEA, gift-wrapped in time for the holidays. But the failure to cut out the title from the “Yoga Community” banner is just an outright lack of effort. Shame on you, fake Cindy.

The Confrontation

Loaded with the screen captures (even more than shown here,) I decided to ask the world’s foremost expert on Cindy Robertson. I started with the email address associated with the account, the very apt (Gosh, did I just share that email address publicly?)


After several innocuous inquiries spread over several days with no response, I caught the little green dot that meant she was online and available on Facebook Chat.

I figured that she’d respond to a question about living in the lofts downtown. After all, she had been so kind as to share her home with us in pictures, and listed several hobbies and interests that would indicate she might know something.

“I’ve got a friend who is interested in moving downtown, just checking on experiences.”

As you can see, she bailed on the chat session without a response.

Finally, I resorted to Facebook’s Inbox. Maybe if she’s just too busy, I can catch her for a volley of messages in between things. I initiated a thread on January 7th, just before Alabama’s national championship game. She answered late that night, but didn’t respond to my follow-up. (Note… she also didn’t talk about the results of that game, anytime between January 8th and January 26th, at a time when many female Bama fans were so giddy, they wrote they’d gladly leave their husbands for Nick Saban.)

Notice the nice, thoughtful and pensive picture on her avatar. It’s there in the morning. But a couple of hours later, she responds and then blocks me. (At the time, I was getting time-stamp discrepancies when posting with my mobile phone.)

I’m pretty sure she’d never been interviewed, either. Until now. And the last thing I saw was the smiley.

The Game of Access

I’ll never know for sure who is behind the fake Cindy Robertson account. But I have some educated guesses, based on the clues presented.

First, if you’re going to do a bogus profile, it’s got to be a woman. You can parlay that maiden-married name confusion into a lot of additional Friend Request acceptances from people who just aren’t quite sure, or can’t turn down a girl with a pretty face.

Second, it helps to leverage existing friends. Fake Cindy reeled me in, then went through my friend list to seek out others. In doing so, he/she was trucking on my reputation to get others to accept. I don’t know how many people clicked “Yes” simply because my face was there along with other friends in common. (And if you’re one of them, I’m sorry.)

What is this perpetrator after? Information. Not identity theft stuff. Here’s my theory. We’re looking for a man in the Birmingham metro area who is involved in real estate. Look again at the interests to the right. We have both “Real Estate Investing” and “Flipping Houses” listed. One presumes the sort of money an under-30 single mother would likely NOT possess, the other is expressed in a very masculine way. Women tend to refurbish or restore homes. Men “flip” them.

Also… not to sound terribly sexist here, but “Motivational Seminars” and “Anything by Zig Ziglar” are not in the XX-Chromosome camp. She/he might as well have included Rush under the Favorite Music. (Although, having been to see Rush recently, I’d bet the concert was less of a sausage-fest than a Zig Ziglar book signing.)

Add it all up, and the profile points to a male in his 40s or 50s, who works in real estate and can’t spell either “Forrest Gump” or “Steel Magolias.” He also thinks women should end all of their sentences with smiley faces:)

Why would he bother creating a fake profile and becoming friends with literally thousands of middle-to-upper income people in Birmingham?

Wait, did you really just ask that question?

Most people aren’t aware of Facebook’s quite robust search feature. You can search for people, pages, applications, and posts across all of Facebook.

Or, you can narrow your search results to the network of Friends you have built.

You know… that rich database of thousands of well-off, upwardly-mobile people in your target demographic and exact geographic location. That network you worked so hard to build.

Every day, you go in and you mine that network for keywords like “moving,” “yard too small,” “new job,” “relocation,” “real estate,” and God only knows what else works. When you find those people, you mail them a flier, or some other seemingly innocent contact that just by fate happens to land in their laps at the exact moment when they might actually want to find a competent real estate agent.

It’s brutal in its genius, as it is ruthless in its ethics.

So, you want to know why I stopped accepting each and every generic invitation on Facebook and LinkedIn? You want to know why I am a little suspect about “mutual openness” and “reciprocity” and the Kumbaya Chorus of Social Media? You want to know why I think Mark Zuckerberg is a child, playing around with incredibly powerful technologies while harboring ridiculous idealistic fantasies about Total Transparency and a post-Privacy culture?

I won’t answer those questions. Go ask Cindy.

(…or find Renee Brantley, the star of the sequel.)

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  1. WOW!  As Mary said–this was very eye-opening, but like Frances–I am not surprised.  I have not; however, heard of this type of behavior being promoted at any RE BarCamp or conference that I have either attended or at which I have presented. I can tell you that I would be the one jumping up and down in the aisles as this really goes against my grain 100% as a real estate professional.
    I was recently asked while speaking at Agent Reboot how I handle requests to connect on Facebook from people I don’t know.  I mentioned to the audience that I have an inter-Facebook e-mail that I send to those folks politely thanking them for their request, but that I would like to keep in touch via my business page.   The e-mail goes something like this:
    Hi “Cindy,” – (sorry, couldn’t resist, Ike!)

    Don’t you love Facebook? I am; however, finding that staying in touch with my Sphere of Influence and clients is becoming more difficult with the more “friends” I have on Facebook.

    I would love to keep in touch via my Business Page! Thank your so much for contacting me! Here is the link –

    I look forward to getting to know you more, Cindy!

    Warmest regards,
    Dawn Thomas, Broker Associate, CLHMS, CIPS, CRS, GRI, SRES
    Honored by The Mercury News readers as “Best Real Estate Agent in Silicon Valley 2010” (voted “Best Blog in Silicon Valley 2010”)
    I have been on LinkedIn for about 9-10 years–LONG before the real estate industry discovered it.  I am emphatic about NOT connecting with people i do not know as that forum is really meant for B2B corporate and true connections.   I have been watching it get muddied terribly by people connecting for the numbers sake only.  This drives me nuts!
    I, like Mary, am un-friending people who don’t engage on Facebook and also on Twitter–those who are continual “auto-posters” and have no “@” responses in their threads at all.
    Thank you, Ike, for being so diligent in your investigative work and for sharing what you have learned.  This is valuable information for everyone–especially those of us who care about our connections and doing things the correct way.

    • Thanks, Dawn. I like long replies!

      In no way was I hinting that all Realtors are dirty. (In fact, I know the difference between capitalized and uncapitalized Realtor!) But the practice is prevalent enough and widespread enough that it’s being promoted somewhere, just like Black Hat SEO techniques.

      Keep speaking out, and being a beacon for doing it the right way!

  2. See, I use FB differently than most. I use it casually. I don’t put up much important information there for these very reasons – I assume nothing I put there is private or secure. That way I’ll never be caught with my “pants on the ground”. My comments tend sometimes to be trivial and I don’t post photos, my location, or much about my status. I do engage with others and comment/like their links often, and post opinions on somewhat seemingly random things, but that is b/c I am wary of the medium. It’s fine for superficial relationships and I enjoy viewing the stream from others. But for true friendships & networking, they know how to reach me. The rest is just for fun, I don’t use it seriously, and I certainly don’t trust it w/ too much of my personal information. I notice a lot of my friends are the same – but they are silicon valley types and maybe more distrustful in general.

    I could probably be accused of being fake on FB too if one were to parse closely enough, but I do have my information in another site (the one I work for!)

    • Antje — I’m more like you than you know. I don’t share a lot of private family stuff on Facebook, mostly links and discussions that I find interesting.

      But I found out the hard way that when I accepted someone as real, many of my friends were influenced by that and also accepted the fakes as real.

      I hope your friends all use social networks the way you do, but are you making an unwarranted assumption?

      Food for thought…

  3. Mary said: “This is such a common practice in real estate that they actually promote this technique at conferences”
    How about naming the conference and session title? Heck, tell us the person’s name too. Why hide protect them?
    If it is such a “common practice” it shouldn’t be difficult, at all, to be more specific.
    Doing something like creating a fake profile is just stupid. About as stupid as labeling an entire profession “realtards”. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but don’t tell me it’s “common practice” and promoted at conferences if you can’t back that up. When was the last time you attended a real estate conference Mary?
    Ike – very interesting stuff, and nice detective work. Not sure I understand the point of an “untrust list”. Getting paranoid, reducing the persons access? Why not just click on “unfriend”?

  4. I guess I have to get out more.
    Going to these lengths would never have occurred to me. Although, I have to admit it’s pretty ingenious.  I mean, what better way to market to people who may actually need/want your services? Heck it’s the Web 2.0 version of cold calling, postcards, refrigerator magnets and pumpkins on Halloween (and a lot cheaper!).
    Most of the real estate professionals I’ve never heard of and don’t know identify themselves as real estate professionals. In this category I include mortgage people, foreclosure clean-out people, handymen, title companies and the lot.
    I guess it’s nefarious but I don’t see it as the end of the world.  Maybe I’m one of the unethical nimrod realtards that is missing the point.  Online privacy is an illusion and navigating through Social Media takes some personal responsibility.  It sounds like you’re doing it right.

  5. This is awesome work Ike. Really compelling writing. Your journalism background serves you well. Mine is a dead in a gutter somewhere.

  6. I do this the other way around — everything on my facebook is only open to a trusted list of friends.  if i friend you on facebook — i might or might not add you to that trusted list!
    i use a pseudonym on twitter, but even there, i go to the trouble of examining everyone who friends me there and blocking them if there’s anything slightly off.  you don’t have as much control over who sees what on twitter so it’s also important (i think) not to tweet about where you are etc or what  you’re doing.  i talk about my activities after i’ve finished them.

  7. Fascinating. Here’s a theory: We’ve got so many casual connections in our digital lives that we often forget names and faces. So these folks prey on our guilt and fear that we’re going to forget someone we should know!  I’ve got a few “friends” who need a little scrutinizing this morning.

  8. Great work, Ike.  To me, one of the worst days of the year was when Facebook changed its privacy settings from allowing me to prevent everyone from adding me as a friend to making “friends of friends” the most restrictive option.  Now I’ve got a list of stacked up friend requests that come not from friends, but from viewers.  If I had a child I think the Pokemon reference would mean more to me, but I think I get the meaning in context.  I recently had my own “Cindy”.  It was a very attractive and well endowed woman who had few details on her page.  I had one friend in common with her.  I texted her, “do you know who Betty Buxom is”.  “No”.  “Well, she’s a friend of yours on Facebook, so I figured I’d check.”  Turns out, because the fake profile listed the same home town as this girl, she figured she knew her and accepted the request.  I did not.  I wish there was a tactful way to deflect people from my personal page to my “fan” page, but I haven’t found it.  I don’t want to alienate viewers, but I also don’t want to be “friends” with strangers.


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  30. Ben Wagenaar says:

    @SiHunt1234 True – I think few people realise how much information is recorded via the web. Also read this – shocking:

  31. […] just read a fascinating blog post about a guy who exposed a “poser” on Facebook. Seems that he befriended this person without really knowing much about her other than […]

  32. Holly Munn says:

    RT @Jenniferwah: Seriously, read this. Do you have fake friends on Facebook? @ikepigott 's cautionary tale is for all:

  33. Gal says:

    Friending Strangers On Fakebook:

  34. Read this & know your "friends." @ikepigott digs into real estate shenanigans and Facebook fakery:

  35. RT @Jenniferwah: Seriously, read this. Do you have fake friends on Facebook? @ikepigott 's cautionary tale is for all:

  36. Rebecca Pugh says:

    If you haven't read this yet – read it now, great post by Isaac about "fake" friends on facebook!

  37. RT @Rebecca_Pugh: If you haven't read this yet – read it now, great post by Isaac about "fake" friends on facebook!

  38. RT @klang67: "It’s brutal in its genius, as it is ruthless in its ethics" Excellent on fake friending on Facebook

  39. RT @ikepigott: Do you have fake Facebook friends? Interesting investigative piece!

  40. I know I'm behind, but if you havent read this yet, do, good job @ikepigott interesting read! #whothehelliscindy

  41. RT @TiceWrites: RT @ikepigott: Do you have fake Facebook friends? Interesting investigative piece!