Jane Head has always been a big fan of NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff. When she posted a message on the journalist's verified Facebook page and got a response from someone claiming to be Jacob, she was pretty psyched.
"I was elated. It was just like, oh my gosh," she told TODAY in a segment that aired on Jan. 25.
Alas, it wasn't Jacob, and the person imitating the journalist quickly encouraged Head to private message them on WhatsApp instead of the public Facebook page.
After connecting in May 2023, the pair exchanged thousands of messages over the course of six months. Head, who lives in Tennessee, said she was in communication with the impostor "almost every day" and there were days when they were in contact "all day long."
Head's daughter was skeptical that a network news correspondent with a hectic schedule could find the time to chat with her — and her instincts proved to be right.
Over the course of six months, the scammer convinced Head to send them over $17,000 in bitcoin and gift cards, even if it didn't quite sit right with her.
"I would say no, no, I can’t. And this person said, 'Well, just let your bills go this month,'" she recalled.
Head’s daughter Joni admitted that it was “very hard” for her to broach the subject with her mother. She ultimately turned to NBC News for help.
“I feel the strain. But it’s only because I love her,” Joni said.
Head felt compelled to share her story with TODAY viewers to help prevent similar scenarios for others. While filming the segment, she even got some face time with Jacob.
"Thank you so much for your support. And I’m so terribly sorry that you’ve gone through something now that so many people have gone through. You're going to help a lot of people by having this conversation...," he said.
Head shared the following advice for others in her situation.
"My journey brought me extreme happiness, and then mortifying sadness. But I think I’m here to point out to other people to be careful," she said.
Celebrity impostor scams are widespread on social media
Head certainly isn't alone in her experience. Celebrity impostor scams are a dime a dozen these days and the Federal Trade Commission says that impostor scams in general are the No. 1 fraud reported to the agency.
While researching Head’s story, NBC News Senior Consumer Investigative Correspondent Vicky Nguyen learned about several similar incidents.
For example. a victim in Kansas lost $94,000 to someone who impersonated country singer Neal McCoy. Another scammer pretending to be actor Johnny Depp conned a Pennsylvania resident out of $41,000. Another woman in Pennsylvania sent $290,000 to a scammer who posed as golfer Phil Mickelson after they met on Facebook.
These impostor scams cost Americans $2 billion in 2023 and FBI Special Agent Andrew Innocenti said that scammers often seek out super fans.
“There’s an allure about celebrities and people wanting to believe that they’re actually talking to those people that they see on TV and in the movies every day,” he told TODAY.
After the segment aired on Jan. 25, Hoda Kotb mentioned how TODAY's Savannah Guthrie once had an impostor create a skin care line in her name.
“It’s not OK,” Savannah said.
In February, Savannah will also release a new book called "Mostly What God Does," and she's already noticed scammers trying to profit off of it.
"There's a workbook that's being sold on some of these sites that has nothing to do with us," she said. "Even my mom was like, 'Oh, should I buy the workbook?' I'm like, 'What workbook? No.'"
What are social media companies doing to protect users?
TODAY reached out to Meta, Facebook and Instagram's parent company, for comment on what they're doing to protect users against these sort of social media scams. They sent the following response:
“Scammers have always existed and they continuously adapt their tactics to new technology to manipulate people in various ways. That's why Meta, alongside our industry peers, continues to take steps to improve detection and enforcement," they wrote, adding that Meta removed 827 million fake accounts between July and September 2023.
X, formerly known as Twitter, did not respond to TODAY's request for comment.
How to protect yourself from online scams
There are several ways you can fend off online scammers:
- Be skeptical when someone reaches out to you claiming to be a celebrity.
- Never send money or gift cards to someone you don't know.
- If you've already lost money to a scammer, cut off contact immediately and contact the bank or gift card company to see if they can reverse the transaction.