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Military Scams on Instagram: Why Cybercriminals Target the Armed Forces

military scams

This blogpost on military scams is adapted from the Post Grams Not Scams White Paper. Click here to read the full report.

In 2016, ZeroFOX Research published the first white paper to comprehensively detail the prevalence and cost of financial scams on Instagram. Spoiler: it’s high.

The focus of their campaign was money-flipping financial scams on Instagram. The scams extort victims into sending money or disclosing banking information. The scammer promises to “flip” their money and return a huge profit. The scammers use Instagram to advertise their services with pictures of money, luxury goods and drugs as well as hijacking bank hashtags to target banks’ customers. At the end of the day, banks and their customers eat the cost.

The Technical Side of Military Scams (Warning: data science lingo ahead…)

To conduct the study, ZeroFOX deployed machine-learning algorithms to classify Instagram accounts as benign or scammers. After identifying thousands of live scammer accounts, the Research Team used data science techniques to identify trends amongst the type of language, emojis, hashtags and techniques used by the scammers — called the “features” of the classifier. To evaluate most commonly co-occurring features, the team performed “cluster analysis” on the data, normalized based on the number of scams per feature. The team also built “topic models” to uncover thematic structures within the data. A topic model is a probabilistic model that clusters topics by choosing the strongest hypothesis for how the documents in the dataset were created. Topic modeling showed that military-related keywords are clustered together in intertopic distance space.

Results: Scammers Love to Target the Military

Technical jargon aside, one thing is clear: scammers love to target the military.

Military scam post features such as language and military hashtags commonly occurred together, strongly indicating the scammers targeted military members. The scammers work hard to impersonate military-specific financial institutions and adopt the language that appeals to military members. Scammers are attuned to the military and craft their attack to be be highly specific to that population.

 

military scams

Military scams on Instagram — advertises services for members of military financial institution and uses hashtags like #armylife, #armygirl and #military to target military members and their families.

Why Target the Military?

Why would scammers choose to target the military more than any other segment of the Instagram population? What makes them more profitable? There’s a few reasons:

  • Most practically, many military-specific financial institutions allow faster and larger withdrawals as a convenience to their overseas customers. When a scammer successfully steals banking credentials from a military member, they can withdraw more money before the bank’s anti-fraud detection freezes the account. This makes members of the military among the most lucrative, biggest-bang-for-the-buck targets.
  • The military has many unique financial vehicles and military-specific institutions. When a scammer hijacks those well known brands and lingo, they seek to establish credibility with the target. A military member is much more likely to trust something purporting to be sponsored by their bank. Because the financial institutions themselves only serve that population, the scammers can easily hijack that pre-segmented, trusted relationship.
  • Scammers exploit the distance between family and other financial supporters of military members. This is the same principle that underlies romance military scams. Members of the military are perhaps the most familiar with cash transfers because of their need to send money overseas. They also are conditioned to expect military-specific financial offers and benefits. All of these things provide the ideal murky waters for a scammer.
    • Financial offers and benefits are not unique to the military, and scammers target the customers of companies who promote sales on social media. Another topic cluster showed holiday-related and shopping-related words and hashtags were highly clustered.
  • The military has a strong, vibrant community on social media. Hashtags like #military, #militarylife, #veteransusa, #patriot and many, many more are readily exploitable for a scammer. Appending these hashtags ensures military scams are shown to the already robust military community. These hashtags not only direct the attack, but establishes trust with their target.

ZeroFOX Recommendations

The recommendation here is simple. Never, ever, ever give your banking credentials to someone on Instagram. Banks will never reach out to you via social media. Anyone pretending to be your bank is certainly a cybercriminal seeking to gain trust. Moreover, any individual claiming that they can “flip” your money is a scammer. They will either withdraw directly from your bank account, steal your identity or bounce a check in your name to rob the funds before your bank can detect the fraud. Banks work hard to prevent this malicious activity, but bank customers are at the front line. A duped customer can still lose tens of thousands of dollars before a bank can step in.

If you are a victim of fraud, immediately contact your financial institution. They can freeze your account before more damage is done, help you change your passwords, re-secure your account and, in some circumstances, help get some of the stolen money back.

Most of all, stay vigilant on social media. It is not a platform built for financial transaction and should never be treated as such.