Earlier today, I received an invitation to a Facebook event from “Giovanna” – someone I’d never heard of and certainly never added as a friend. The invite came as a bit of a surprise, since my profile was fairly locked down. While anyone could search for it, all profile information was set to “Friends Only,” and sending messages or making friend requests was limited to “Friends of Friends.” None of my friends seem to know Giovanna, and her profile is probably fake anyway.
The event title proclaimed “iPhone Testers Needed!” and might be enticing to users who want an iPhone. While the event page included more information on the supposed testing program, the invite was followed by a message from the event creator. Once you’re on the guest list for a Facebook event, the event administrators can send out Facebook messages you’ll receive, regardless of privacy settings. This particular message (which also arrived in my e-mail inbox due to notifications settings) included a link to the iPhone opportunity, which unsurprisingly was a typical “offer” page that required me to submit personal information and try out some service before I could get my fancy new phone.
I began investigating how this all happened. When you create a Facebook event and try to invite people, you’ll only see a list of your friends to choose from. But it turns out that on the backend, nothing prevents you from submitting requests directly to Facebook with other people’s Facebook IDs. In my testing, I’ve been able to send event invitations to other users even if we’re not friends and they have tight privacy settings. I’m guessing that using this technique to invite more than a few people could raise a spam alert, but I’m not sure. Also, an event invitation does not give the event creator increased access to any profile information of guests, but as already noted, it does let event administrators send messages to people they might otherwise not be able to contact.
I’m sure Facebook will take action soon to clamp down on this particular loophole, so I think it unlikely we’ll see it exploited too widely. (The iPhone testing event currently has around 1800 guests – significant, but tiny compared to other Facebook scams.) But it does demonstrate the sort of challenges Facebook is having to handle as their network and power expand. Several years ago, when the site was used for little besides keeping in touch with college classmates and other offline friends, Facebook was seen as mostly spam-free, in contrast to services like Myspace. Now that applications, social gaming friends, and corporate brands have all become integral parts of the Facebook experience, black hat marketers keep finding new ways to spread links among users. And worse, those tricks can often be used to spread malware as well.
I do think that Facebook wants to avoid annoying users with spam, and works to prevent your inbox on the site from becoming as flooded as a typical e-mail account. But a network of 500 million people presents a very enticing target, and we’ll keep seeing new scam ideas pop up as Facebook expands and adds features. In the mean time, continue to be wary of any links promising a glamorous reward for free.