Jalani Morgan for NPR
Angela McNamara’s first clue that her Facebook account had been hacked was an early morning email warning that someone was trying to log into her account.
“If that’s not you, don’t worry, we’re keeping your account safe,” she recalls the email from Facebook. But her relief only lasted a minute, when another email arrived, saying her password had been changed. Then another, informing him that two-factor authentication – an additional layer of security – had been put in place on his behalf.
“And then from there I’m like, OK, let’s go,” said McNamara, who lives outside of Toronto. She tried Facebook’s automated process to recover her account: get a backup code, reset her password. But nothing worked.
It has happened to a lot of people lately, and the experience has left many users almost as frustrated with the social network as it is with the hackers. In July, NPR received 19 emails from listeners complaining that their Facebook accounts had been hacked or disabled. People share similar stories of doom on the Reddit and Twitter forums every day.
Some have become so desperate that they have shelled out hundreds of dollars to buy a virtual reality headset in an attempt to get Facebook to restore their accounts.
When she tried to join Facebook, “No one answered me, not once”
Before going to the extreme, many hack victims try the usual avenues for customer service, but quickly find that it seems impossible to reach someone on Facebook to help resolve the issue.
“Facebook didn’t have a phone number to call. There was no email to email,” said Jessie Marsala, who lives outside of Chicago and sent an email to NPR in early July about his situation.
When Marsala was hacked, she tried to reach Facebook’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. But that number gives a record that says, “Unfortunately, we don’t offer phone support at this time.”
Instead, Facebook asks users to report hacked accounts through its website. The site asks them to upload a copy of a driver’s license or passport to prove their identity. But people NPR spoke to said they had issues every step of the way in this automated process and would like Facebook to offer a way to reach a real person.
“I sent out these forms morning, noon and evening several times a day,” Marsala said. “No one answered me, not once.”
Victoria Floriani of Jersey City, NJ, only had Facebook’s system to accept her driver’s license after she covered everything except her name and photo with a post-it – a tip she found on Reddit. After two weeks of trying, this was the breakthrough she needed to get her account back.
Facebook said that due to the coronavirus pandemic, there were fewer people available to examine identification documents. It also uses artificial intelligence, but its help center warns that exams “may take longer than usual.”
Facebook spokesperson Gabby Curtis told NPR in a statement that the company’s help center is available around the clock to help people with issues and report issues. But Curtis acknowledged: “We also know that we need to continue to improve in this area and we plan to invest more in the future.”
Jalani Morgan for NPR
A solution for those who are willing to pay $ 299
Brandon Sherman of Nevada City, Calif., Followed advice he found on Reddit to get his hacked account back.
“I finally broke down and bought a $ 300 Oculus Quest 2,” he said. Oculus is a virtual reality company owned by Facebook but with its own customer support system.
Sherman contacted Oculus with the serial number of his headset and heard straight away. He plans to make the device unopened, and while he’s happy the strategy worked, he doesn’t think it’s fair.
“The only way to get customer service is to prove that you actually bought something from them,” he said.
When McNamara, the Facebook user in Canada, first heard about the Oculus trick, she thought it was a joke. But she said, “Once I started to think about it, of all my memories, I really realized that I wanted to do whatever I could to get them back.”
So she too ordered an expensive gadget that she had never planned to use and returned it as soon as she returned to her Facebook account.
(A warning to anyone considering trying this – other Reddit users have said they tried to contact Oculus Support but were unable to restore their Facebook accounts. Additionally, last week Facebook has said it is temporarily halting sales of the Oculus Quest 2, which starts at $ 299, because its foam liner caused skin irritation in some customers.)
Hacker victims fear losing money and memories
Losing Facebook might seem like a minor thing, but it can have real consequences.
“The very first concern, after realizing that I was being hacked, is that these people could gain access to my company’s bank account,” said Ben Coleman in Fall River, Massachusetts. “It would be a disaster.”
Coleman’s day job involves teaching math and technology to K-12 students, but he also shoots videos with drone cameras and writes books on how to fold origami bonsai. For both companies, it relies on Facebook to reach customers.
Coleman managed to lock down his Facebook account before the hackers took control of it. But he couldn’t unlock it – so he lost access to everything.
For Jon Morgan in Shepherd, Michigan, it got worse. Hackers used his Facebook account to vandalize the page he helps manage for his city’s maple syrup festival. Facebook disabled Morgan’s account – so now he’s lost access to many family photos, including of his son who died this year.
Morgan said the episode made her realize how integrated Facebook is into her life.
“We think it’s some kind of toy or something for fun, but people share news about it, people get news from it, it’s a photo album,” he said. . “I think what I’ve kind of learned from my experience is that I really need to think about how I’m using it… and what it means for me to lose it.”
After NPR made contact with Facebook, he sent links to Coleman and Marsala to unlock their accounts, and gives Morgan another chance to appeal his account deactivation.
What fuels piracy? Financial gain – and even disinformation campaigns
Facebook said it hasn’t seen a recent spike in hacking and it’s not clear who is behind the hacks people have contacted NPR about.
Many attempts to hack social media accounts are motivated by financial reasons, said Jon Clay, vice president of threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Trend Micro.
A hacker can try to scam the user’s friends and contacts to give them money, he said, or sell accounts on the black market.
Clay said other hackers wanted to steal Facebook accounts to spread disinformation, whether it was the 2020 election, COVID-19 or whatever.
“The fact that social media is now an integral part of everyone’s life [means] it’s a major target, ”he said.
Editor’s Note: Facebook is one of the financial backers of NPR.