Will fake profiles be the death of LinkedIn?

Why do they do it? Who is behind these fake profiles on LinkedIn?

I’ve seen a lot more of them recently. Many of you might not have even noticed. Why do I say that? Because more and more I’m seeing people I know as being connected with and – even recommending people from fake profiles.

I’ve never been promiscuous with my social network use. I actually do make an effort to make sure that I know the people I’m connecting with. The size of my network isn’t as important as the quality. So I tend to look at profiles as they come up. If I don’t know the person or have any idea of why they want to connect with me, I tend to pass them by. On occasion, I’ve sent back notes asking why they wanted to connect with me.

There are some times that I used to more or less “automatically” connect with someone. Students of mine, alumni or people recommended by others that I know. I’m even questioning that. Why? Because profiles aren’t always what they appear.

You may not have noticed them. If you’ve been on LinkedIn for any amount of time, you have almost certainly seen them. Some of them are very easy to spot if you take a few seconds to look at them. The profiles are sparse with little information. Many times, there are numerous typographical errors and mistakes in capitalization.

Some of them are pretty good. This one, which I think has been removed from LinkedIn after I complained was a little harder to spot.

Phoney Linked In profile for Martin Yoshida
Phoney LinkedIn profile for Martin Yoshida.

When this Martin Yoshida came up as a request to connect I couldn’t remember why I should know him, so I did something I classically do – I searched his image on Google Image search.  I found another person with the same photo. Daniel St. Andrews is an actor in Vancouver Canada. I’m certain that it’s him because he has a video link where he is being interviewed.

This is the real Linked In profile for Danile St Andrews
The real LinkedIn profile for Daniel St. Andrews?

But if you check Daniel’s accurate profile, you will find two Martin Yoshida’s linked to him. I couldn’t determine if those guys were real or not. It would take more digging. But even when you do know the people in their network, you have to be cautious. I had no reason to immediately suspect this gentleman. I used to work for Fujitsu and I’ve met a fair number of people from Japan. Our publications are read around the world. So it’s not impossible that someone would want to link up with me from Japan.

Another phoney Linked In profile
Another phoney LinkedIn profile?

Even when I dug a little deeper, one of my close contacts (I won’t embarrass them by saying who) was in his network. It still didn’t seem right. Once again a little Google image search dug up motoya’s identical twin.

Which is which?
Which is the real profile?

Which is real? Neither. As I later found out, this is actually a picture of Peter Wong Man Kong who for the record is a deputy in the National People’s Congress. That took a little digging especially since so many people had fallen for this that I had to wade through a lot of mentions before I found who he really was.

I blocked and reported them both. Yes – you can report suspect profiles. That “down arrow” right beside where it says “Send Song Inmail” allows you to block and report a suspect profile – something people should do more often in my opinion. If I’m even suspicious, I report them and let LinkedIn figure it out. They might hate me for it, but in the end I figure I’m doing them a favour. The more phoney profiles there are out there, the less trust we place in our networks.

Why do they do it? 

I don’t know if anyone knows for certain why these profiles appear. Someone obviously has a purpose in putting them up. The best guess that I’ve seen is social engineering, or as it is commonly called “phishing.” Phishers masquerade as someone you know or if you don’t know, should be able to trust. They managed to get people to give up sensitive information by going a phoney link or site and getting login, password, financial, or other sensitive information. In case you think that their victims are all senior citizens, think again.

I know of more than one IT department that’s been phished successfully. Some phishers have even managed to get troop locations in combat – you’d think that would be impossible. And where do you think the Sony passwords that were circulating on the Internet came from? My money is on phishing.

If you think you are immune, think again. I’m relatively careful and I’ve been phished. It was really well done and fortunately I caught it quickly enough, but anyone can fall victim. Which is why you are not supposed to use the same passwords for everything – something few of us really follow.

Regardless of why they do it, you can be sure of two things. One, they are up to no good. Two – they will get better at it.

What can you do?

Don’t be promiscuous on social media. You don’t need to link up with everyone who contacts you. Ask why you want to know that person. Watch out for suspicious profiles. Never link up with anyone who doesn’t have a picture that you recognize and take a second to do a Google search on the picture. One caveat? If that picture appears as a contact in other LinkedIn profiles it may turn up with a different names – but take a second and check them out.

Do not – repeat do not trust someone just because they have others in your network.  I’ve routinely found people in my network on these “zombie profiles.” There’s even one Toronto recruiter who recommended one these guys for four different skills. Boy – I’m really going to trust that guy’s recommendations.  Which adds one key item – do not recommend anyone who you don’t know. I can tolerate having someone phished into having someone in their network, but if you are recommending people you don’t even know how will anyone trust you? I’m quietly dropping that recruiter from my network. If he’s that sloppy do I really want to work with him?

If you find someone suspicious, report it. If your friends are in their network, be a friend and let them know.

And if you’re really my friend, just call…

Those who know me, know that I moonlight as a musician. I recorded this song parodying social media a few years back. (Warning NSFW – you might want to listen to this the first time yourself. Don’t crank up the speakers in the open office.)

The message is surprisingly relevant. Social media should support our relationships – but if we don’t respect it and use it well, it will lose it’s effectiveness. We need as much emphasis on the “social” as the “media” – maybe a little more.

I used to admire LinkedIn’s restrictions. The idea that you actually had to have some connection gave it that feeling of a real business network. One of the ways that you could connect with someone that you didn’t know was via a referral. Some research that was done a few years back showed that these so called “weak links” were actually much more powerful than we thought. A link up or a recommendation from someone you knew carried a lot of weight.

If it turns out that there is no assurance than anyone is who they say they are – how effective will LinkedIn be? Will fraud and our carelessness reduce the value of LinkedIn? Not that we should pick on LinkedIn. It’s just one of the social networks. Are there other examples out there?

I wrote this to stimulate discussion. I’m not claiming to have all the answers. I’d love to hear your comments and opinions.




Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO of a great company - IT World Canada - Canada's leading ICT publisher.

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