Country superstar Blake Shelton is tall, tousle-haired and so ruggedly handsome that People magazine proclaimed him the "Sexiest Man Alive" four years ago. Less than a year later, J.R., a woman in her 60s in Alabama, heard she could enter a $1 million contest to be chosen the Grammy-winning singer's fan of the year. To enter, the woman made three payments totaling $17,500 through wire transfers, court documents show. But it was all a hoax.
It was not Shelton's manager who was communicating with J.R., identified in court documents only by her initials. There was no $1 million contest. And Shelton, 45, who's known across musical genres, since he's a coach on NBC's The Voice, is among a cavalcade of performers who have publicly condemned the criminals who highjack their names.
Singer Trace Adkins, a Shelton friend and tour mate, told CBS This Morning that fraud victims were “starting to show up at concerts saying that I invited them to be there. There are women that show up and say, ‘Oh, we're engaged.’ ”
Celebrity ruses vary. The fake VIP — or one of their “reps” — generally reaches out to fans on social media sites or dating platforms, then may move the back-and-forth chitchat to private messaging. The impostor ultimately asks for cash or a charitable donation, or for electronics, or for private information, such as a Social Security number. Sometimes the bait is a celebrity “meet and greet.” As Adkins noted, cybercrooks also cook up phony “celebrity” romances online. He says he reports impostors but “it's whack-a-mole, you know. You can't stop them."
High cost of impostor scams
Celebrity frauds are a global scourge that have also cropped up in India, Hong Kong, China, the U.K. and Australia. In the U.S., the West Virginia-based ring accused of hijacking Shelton's name is a multi-defendant operation that allegedly also exploited the name of Avengers: Endgame actor Chris Hemsworth.
Victims’ losses can be staggering. The ring also cultivated run-of-the-mill online romances and led victims to think they were men working overseas, federal prosecutors say. Altogether the defendants allegedly defrauded at least 200 people, many of them older Americans, for at least $2.5 million.
Impostor scams were the No. 1 fraud complaint last year to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), with just under a half-million reports; more than 1 in 5 targets lost money. Total losses were nearly $1.2 billion; the median loss was $850.
- A California woman said her neighbor was getting messages from a man pretending to be Rolling Stones’ front man Mick Jagger and that the victim had sent on money, supposedly for a Jagger charity.
- An Illinois man called to say his wife met a celebrity imposter on Kik Messenger, an instant messaging app, and bought and sent on $11,000 worth of cell phones and equipment for the VIP's “marketing team."
- A Virginia caller reported that a relative sent $20,000 to a scammer pretending to be actor Liam Hemsworth, the brother of Chris Hemsworth.
- A New Jersey woman said she believed she was communicating with a “famous wrestler” and that he had begun asking her to buy him gift cards, help him buy a condo, and reveal her mother's married and maiden names. The fake wrestler promised marriage, but later reneged, saying he had a wife.
A blue checkmark signifies authenticity
AARP's Amy Nofziger, who oversees the helpline, advises fans of celebrities to look for a blue checkmark when searching for them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. The checkmark means a public figure's page or profile is authentic.
Just as important, she says, is to remember that a celebrity's favored charity should be a tax-exempt 501(c)3. You can vet nonprofits on sites such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar. Keep in mind that a genuine VIP won't send you a private message to solicit funds, according to Nofziger, who says: “Enjoy your celebrity crushes — we all have them. Just be careful when any ‘celebrity’ says they need your help."
Criminal cons who pose as celebrities follow a playbook, says Anthony Pratkanis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz. They establish and nurture a relationship with their target before “the ask.” In private messages, the con profiles the target to determine the best approach. If a target is lonely, it's a romance scam; if they are altruistic, it's a charity scam.
Since celebrities’ authentic Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts — and countless impostor accounts — are public, fans who post their names and comments may want to think twice. A bad actor can pick up the breadcrumbs and pretend to those who posted comments that they are the actual celeb. Widely available celebrity news — who's at the Grammy Awards, has a new movie out or is headed to divorce court — lets the phonies gather intel as they play the role of their lives.
The fact that many celebrities are wealthy doesn't stop impostors from asking for cash, since fraudsters invent excuses about why they supposedly can't access their funds, Pratkanis says.
Every society has high-status people, and those close to them — including victims of impostors, fleetingly — feel pride in being connected to the other person and their success. It's called “BIRGing,” or basking in reflected glory. And it's the same reason that sports fans wear team jerseys and that parents, on bumper stickers, tell the world their kids are honor students.
Celebrity impostor scams are “horrific,” Pratkanis says, since they tarnish a distinguished person whose preferred charity can lose out if a victim gives to a phony cause. Society at large is hurt, too, he observes: “People focus on the damage criminal cons do to human beings when they take their money and they destroy their trust. And that is so true. But the other thing to remember is they're destroying the trust fabric of our society."
If it happens to you
Here's FTC guidance on what to do if a “celebrity” contacts you on social media and asks for cash.
- Slow down. Before you send money, talk with someone you trust.
- Search online for the celebrity's name and the word “scam.” Do the same with any charity you're asked to support.
- Never send money, gift cards or prepaid debit cards or other forms of payment to someone you don't genuinely know or haven't met.
- If you sent money to a scammer, contact the company you used to send the money, such as a bank or gift card company. Tell them the transaction was a fraud and ask for it to be reversed.
- Report the fraud to the social media site and the FTC.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.