Saturday February 2, 2013

Like the real world, the social media networking site Facebook is populated not only by law-abiding citizens, but also by all manner of scammers, sexual predators, and identity thieves.

An affadavit released to the Banner Friday in connection with an alleged prostitution ring under investigation in Bennington indicates someone created a Facebook page under what appears to be an assumed identity and used it to traffic in sex and drugs.

A preliminary search of that individual's 279 Facebook friends reveals only females -- all of whom appear to be young females from the Bennington area.

The only information about the person on the Facebook profile is a lone photo that does not reveal his face and his gender: male.

Information obtained by the Banner Friday indicated that person, Jason Balsh, or the person (or people) masquerading as Balsh, was a key player in what appears to be a local prostitution ring.

How easy is it to fake a Facebook profile? According to a WikiHow article "How to Reveal a Fake Facebook Account," it's not difficult at all. But there are several ways to guard against being scammed on Facebook.

"Be careful what you put online and what you tell people you don't really know. Some people act very caring until they have enough information about you and then they turn around and blackmail you with it. If you don't know the person, no matter how friendly you've become in the online context, keep back your private details and keep everything very general," states the article.

Facebook told CNN last year that 8.7 percent -- or 83 million -- of its 955 million monthly active users worldwide are actually duplicate or false accounts.

A female resident of Saskatoon, Canada, made headlines recently for creating a fake Facebook profile using photos of a pageant contestant. She used the fake profile to con young men hoping for dates into giving her money. That woman is banned from using the Internet for the next six months.

California marketing executive Diane O'Meara, 23, became the center of a scandal earlier this month when a photo copied from her Facebook page was used to depict Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's fictitious girlfriend on Twitter and other social-media sites.

On the flip side, law enforcement can and does use Facebook in the course of investigating crimes. Additionally, Facebook users have the ability to report to the site other profiles suspected of wrongdoing.

What you see on the Internet isn't always what you get.

When it comes to social media, as in real life, caveat emptor.

~Michelle Karas