ORLANDO, Fla. -- Facebook is the latest hot spot for swindlers in search of new victims.
And the world's most popular social-networking website can be a gold mine for such crooks, experts say.
Scams on social-media sites are much the same as the ones you may have received as e-mail, said Kevin Johnson, a consultant for Secure Ideas, which does security research.
"The big difference in the (social-networking) scams is the level of trust that the users have," he said.
Over time, we've become leery of unusual e-mails with strange links, but many people's ingrained suspicions of e-mail scams have not carried over to Facebook. The social network tries to keep track but isn't responsible for everything on its site.
Cybercriminals on Facebook today come cloaked as real friends sending messages asking you to wire them money in a foreign country or posting a note on your wall with a funny video that's really a dangerous link.
The scammers are smart, sneaky and hoping you fall for their tricks. They do it for various reasons, including stealing your identity or using your personal data to sell to marketers.
They lure victims many ways, such as offering fake gift cards or a chance to win gadgets by clicking on a link or that oh-so-common Facebook "Like" button. But to win, the con artists say, you have to answer some questions and provide a cellphone or creditcard number.
"People automatically trust that, if it's on Facebook, then it's probably secure and vetted by Facebook in some way," said Tom Eston, a senior consultant for SecureState, a security-management consulting firm.
But even Facebook admits that keeping its customers safe is difficult.
"Facebook faces a security challenge that few, if any, other companies or even governments have faced -- protecting more than 500 million people on a service that is under constant attack," company spokesman Simon Axten said. "The fact that less than 1 percent of Facebook users have ever encountered a security issue on the site is a significant achievement of which we are very proud."
Facebook has created a system to combat identity theft, viruses and suspicious log-in attempts. Its security team looks for strange activity that may mean an account has been compromised. The company can delete fake messages and block links. And it does go after scammers in court.
"Security is a constant arms race, and our teams are always working to identify the next threat and build defenses for it," Axten said.
Other companies try to warn customers if their brands get caught up in a scam.
Back in March, fake gift cards popped up for the Olive Garden. The chain posted a message on its Facebook page, warning customers about the scam.
"Once we're aware, we take steps to inform our guests and work with them if they're inconvenienced in any way," Olive Garden spokeswoman Heidi Schauer said.
It's not always easy to tell the difference between a legitimate offer and a fake one.
Experts suggest that users -- before clicking on a link -- check out any deals first by going to a company's website, examining its Facebook page closely, seeing how many fans the page has and, of course, using common sense.
Some scams involve con artists who use Facebook to contact potential targets. Several parents, for example, recently filed complaints with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which partners with the FBI, about a Facebook modeling contest based in Florida.
One mom said she paid $5 to enter her son in the contest, from which the winner was supposed to receive a photo shoot for a clothing line and a paid trip to Miami. She began questioning the offer when the organizer asked for her son's birth certificate, Social Security number and credit-card information, according to the complaint, which is pending.
Earlier this month, authorities nabbed a Key West man and accused him of extorting sorority members and pledges at several universities. He had contacted the women through Facebook and demanded they provide racy photographs and web-camera transmissions of themselves. He threatened them, saying their sorority membership depended on their compliance, officials said.
Law-enforcement agencies throughout the world are battling these issues.
In Thailand, a university student on Dec. 4 was arrested for using another student's name to create a fake Facebook page, connect with other people and swindle them out of some of their money.
It's challenging to track down wrongdoers who could be accessing the web from anywhere in the world. In the Sunshine State, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which handles some cybercrime cases, prioritizes its cases and goes after violent offenders first.
"The scams are so widespread and so huge that it's hard for anyone to really tackle it," FDLE Special Agent Supervisor Mike Phillips said.
Another source of scams involves the third-party software applications allowed by Facebook. The social network invites developers to create software programs for games, entertainment, businesses and shared interests. So far, there are hundreds of thousands of such "apps" available.
An app may seek permission to access a user's personal data. In most cases, that information stays with the developer, but some of them break the rules and use it for malicious reasons.
So should you stop using Facebook entirely?
"No, it just means we need to use it more carefully," said Johnson, the security consultant. "We need to understand what we are sharing and understand the threat that sharing presents."
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