Spammers and Scammers on Social Networks

It’s ironic that a few days before speaking on Using Social Media for Social Good I would wind up filing a complaint with the FTC about a possible fraud being committed on social networks. That same day we held a plurkshop on Internet security issues and microblogging. Hence the title of this post: spammers and scammers have arrived on your favorite social network.

Jennifer Leggio, network security geek and ZDNet blogger, introduced us to Adam J. O’Donnell, Director of Emerging Technologies at Cloudmark. Together they fielded questions from more than 60 participants and explained some of the dangers lurking on social networks. Spammers have moved from unsolicited emails to using friend requests on social networks. Clicking on their profiles can trigger malicious code. You can read the entire transcript here (Plurkshop 7 - Security and Microblogging) and Deb Robison’s excellent analysis here (Plurkshop 7 Recap).

The alleged fraud relates to a Plurk and Twitter user who goes by the name LillyAnn and a request by someone claiming to be her daughter who was raising funds to pay for dialysis for Lilly. Many conversations on Plurk link to various social network or Web profiles for Lilly Calandrello, but if you want to read the entire thread (1500+ replies) with the original request and the evolving revelations about the real identity of this person, use this link: LillyAnn’s daughter wants her Plurk friends to know…

When I first read the request last weekend, I recognized that I was connected to LillyAnn on several networks. I recalled having a few brief exchanges with her. I decided to give a small amount to the cause and do some checking on it. Because of my work with the Frozen Pea Fund, I’m very aware of — and supportive of — using social networks for social good.

My first concern came when I checked the PayPal account and saw that the verified business user associated with the account was, a network devoted to psychic readings and spiritual guidance of the nebulous sort. The Web site owner, however, was the same Lilly Calandrello on the social network where the request originated. So I set aside my prejudice against the stereotypical psychic-as-con-artist and decided to err on the side of compassion: I gave $10.

I also suggested that it would give more credibility to the fund-raising effort if the online friends who knew Lilly better set up a ChipIn widget with more information about her and her health needs. I was immediately contacted by Gabrielle, Lilly’s daughter, asking for my help in setting it up. Red flag #2. I responded that I did not know LillyAnn well enough and that it should originate from those who did. That private message thread was immediately deleted, as was another thread that had started raising concerns about inconsistencies that were coming to light. Red flag #3.

A ChipIn page was quickly set up by someone, though, and raised $357.50 before being suddenly shut down. By this time too many questions had been raised — legitimate questions, like the name of the hospital where Lilly was supposedly in ICU awaiting a life-saving treatment — that could not be ignored. Communication from Gabrielle also stopped at that time.

Other social network users began to weigh in with discrepancies. It appears that most of LillyAnn’s LinkedIn profile, for example, was plagiarized. Pictures she had posted online were found to be digital renderings that could in no way be associated with her actual home. Evidence indicates that her real name is Barbara Calandrello, but at this point none of us know if that is the person who was using social networks to perpetate some kind of scam, or if someone else was using her identity online.

To make a long story short, I was glad I had given that $10 because it allowed me to file a claim with the FTC so the case could be investigated. As far as I know, none of the others who gave to the cause — at least a couple of whom stated they gave $100 — has filed a report. I strongly believe that when a community’s trust is violated, the community should respond appropriately so that others are not affected.

Just as social networks can be used for good, they can also be abused and used for nefarious purposes. When that happens — whether for good or evil — our reaction as a community is important. Think about what it means to be a good community citizen. Should we let angry accusations of being “self-appointed police” stop us from speaking out? Or do we take a stand against bad behavior?

The spammers and scammers are hoping we’ll remain quiet.

~ Connie

UPDATE: Please read this excellent review of the Calandrello case, and its similarity to the Kaycee Nicole scandal, here: Quantum Entanglements - The Social Media Scandals.

This post was written by:

Connie Reece - who has written 135 posts on Every Dot Connects.

Contact the author

10 Comments For This Post

  1. Lolagrrl Says:

    Excellent post Connie!
    As one of the people who tried to untangle LillyAnn’s far-reaching “web” of lies when I first read the Plurk thread that brought this all to light, I am truly surprised that she was not uncovered sooner.
    Simple Google searches turned up astronomical amounts of plagiarized material on ~every~ site she ever touched and I was shocked at how blatant some of it was. She even embedded a you tube video that still linked back to the real owner!
    Let’s also not forget her pictures. Whenever I see a professional-looking photograph as someone’s avatar that is not accompanied by a mention of a love of photography or history of modeling in the bio, I am ~instantly~ suspect! And I was rather disgusted by all the leery comments made by her male friends on MySpace in regards to these same pictures (seriously guys?! Are you ~that~ blindly desperate?!?)… But I digress.

    Unfortunately, I fear that a lot more money was taken in on what I call “LillyGate” than just the $357.50
    If memory served me correctly, “Gabrielle” was thanking everyone for their donations and had stated that she had received the $1,200 needed for “dialysis” well before the ChipIn page ever emerged.
    The other unfortunate part is that people generally do not come forward when they’ve been scammed due to the embarrassment they feel. Hopefully this will change.
    Lastly, the thing that bothers me more about this type of scam (over all the other Internet scams that just piss me off) is that there really was a more genuine ~social~ aspect to this one. The power of social networking (especially on sites like Plurk) bring people even closer together. People really feel like they truly ~know~ one another on SocNets and that LillyAnn was a true friend. No wonder they opened their pocketbooks so quickly.

    It truly is a shame. Lilly, if you are lurking out there (as many of us suspect you are) shame on you… and kiss your Internet career goodbye.

  2. Jane Chin Says:

    I think that scams are especially nefarious when perpetuated on social networks exactly because of the speed with which the con may be pulled.

    This is why those of us who want to preserve the sanctity of social networking must act as swiftly as we did when we thought we were helping, when we confront fraud.

  3. NEENZ Says:


    I’ve experienced the genuine generosity of the social media community through the Frozen Pea Fund, Ashley Spence, and more. This situation is completely unfortunate and I assure you I won’t remain quiet.


  4. Justin Kownacki Says:

    I’m glad you’re taking action to stop this mis-use of social networks. Anything, from a gun to a Twitter account, can be used for evil; it’s up to us, the people — not the corporations or the governments — to speak up and take action when our tools and our freedoms are being manipulated.

  5. Connie Reece Says:

    @Lolagrrl and @Janechin - thanks for helping to get the word out on Plurk about this travesty. It’s a sobering reminder that for all the ease of connecting on social networks, judgment is still required when making friends.

    @Neenz - thanks for helping to spread the word on Twitter. I saw your retweet of the link here. I knew you would be community-minded on the issue.

    @Justin - I agree that it’s up to *us* to speak out and do something about things like this. Whether actual fraud has been committed or not is a legal matter; but unethical behavior is something we’re free to point out on our blogs and in our networks so that we can put a stop to it when we find it.

  6. KathleenLD Says:

    Great post, Connie!

    I wasn’t aware of this. I’d seen the plurk, but by now the number of responses is far past 1000 and I wasn’t about to catch up.

    Thanks for such a clear explanation and good for you for not simply taking it silently!


  7. Lorenz Gude Says:

    Really helpful post. I went from complete ignorance to clear understanding in a couple of minutes. I see this as part of the rules that usually arise in new media environments. So far I gleaned that the new rules when we find ourselves victimized on a social network is not to let shame silence us and quickly use the network to call attention to the problem and then complain to the relevant authority.

  8. Mike Chapman Says:

    Where I just came from, the Netroots Nation conference, I think the participants would have already hunted down and horsewhipped, in a virtual way, the perpetrator of the scam. Good for you guys for going after this person. Safe, online, fundraising is a valuable tool for organizing in the new era. Accountability is critical. I’ll be really interested to see how, and if, the FTC responds.

  9. Michelle Greer Says:

    This issue goes beyond the non-profit level. I think we assume that if someone uses social networking, they can automatically be kept in check. If someone’s mean, the community will take care of them. If they are dishonest, someone will find out.

    The problem with this equation is that our world goes far beyond social media. Someone can scam others, use another handle and avatar, and no one would ever know.

    Trust is hard to establish on the internet, as it should be. I think we sometimes get so excited by the collaborative aspects of the web 2.0 community that we forget it’s still a part of the community at large. Crime happens, harassment happens. Such is life.

  10. Aruni Gunasegaram Says:

    Wow! What a real shame. I guess people still think it’s OK to take advantage of people’s trust and with the anonymity of the Internet where it’s hard to verify who is who it probably is rampant.

    I remember getting acosted by a woman in undergrad in the parking lot who seemed desparate about her mom being in the hospital and she needed money for a ride or for her mom. I guess I fell victim to her good acting and gave her some money only to see her 5 minutes later speeding off in a truck of a friend of hers. I was pretty annoyed for a while and then I had to chalk it up to ’she probably needed it more than I did.’

    I believe what goes around comes around so people who take advantage of people’s trust will somehow experience the same some day.

    Glad you filed a complaint and hopefully they will catch this person.

4 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Plurkaholics! » Blog Archive » Scamming at the Speed of Social Networking Says:

    [...] Reece effectively summed up a scam pulled off by someone who has been building up an internet “persona” for many years, [...]

  2. Grassroots Fundraising with Social Media: The Downside - Profy.Com Says:

    [...] spirit found in social media to take advantage of people. On her blog, she recounts the story of a Twitter and Plurk user who leveraged social connections on multiple services to bilk "friends" out of money, claiming that she needed money to [...]

  3. WinExtra » OMG People Are Using Web 2.0 For Bad Things Says:

    [...] from the other day by Cyndy Aleo-Carreira at [nw] where another blogger by the name of Connie Reece tells of a user [nw] on Twitter and Plurk who has been leveraging their friend listing to bilk them out of money [...]

  4. Smart Mobs » Blog Archive » Raising Money using Says:

    [...] is a fantastic way for communities to organize fund raising efforts, especially online where trust is hard to come by and sometimes broken. When founder Andrew Mason created he “wanted a way for people to aggregate [...]