For cryptocurrency scammers, imitation is the sincerest form of fraud.
The summer of Elon Musk making headlines for his controversial tweets continues apace, and the past several days have been particularly scorching. This time the topic was Musk’s attempt to help rescue the teenaged soccer players and their coach trapped in a Thailand cave.
Musk was met with skepticism from Vernon Unsworth, a British diver involved in the rescue. Unsworth was then himself met with accusations of pedophilia from Musk, who faced widespread backlash and quickly apologized.
“His actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologize to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader,” Musk tweeted on Wednesday. “The fault is mine and mine alone.”
It all gets weirder. Directly beneath that tweet appeared another, ostensibly from Musk. “I’ll make sure that my actions, present and future, won’t ever affect anyone in a bad way. I hope that we, as a community, will be as open-minded and as friendly to each other as possible,” it said. “I have also prepared something exciting to ease the tension.” A link to a post on Blogger. Send me a little bit of cryptocurrency, the post said, and I’ll send you a lot more back. One participant would be eligible to win a Tesla. The post was signed “Elon.”
Huh, I thought, what a strange way to apologize. I sent the tweet to a fellow reporter. “Oh lol,” she said. “Those are fake Elon accounts.”
I went back to Twitter and clicked through. The account looked almost identical to that of the Real Elon Musk: same picture, same display name. But the handle wasn’t @elonmusk. It was @elomtusk. I’d been duped.
I wasn’t the only one. This fake account is just one of many in a growing ecosystem of scammers lurking in Musk’s mentions. They create nearly identical accounts with handles that are just slightly misspelled, and then attach themselves to the real Musk by directly replying to his tweets. They share links to cryptocurrency giveaways, where they ask unsuspecting users to send them small amounts of cryptocurrency, with promises of an even bigger payout. The more creative ones even enlist fake accounts to respond to them with excitement, urging those around them to join in.
“I sent 1 ETH per instruction in the link you provided and never got anything back,” someone tweeted at the real Musk this week. “What’s going on here? Did I just get scammed?!!”
“I just got scammed last night out of.22 Bitcoin, which is about $1650 USD from a fake Elon Musk account about Bitcoin giveaway,” another tweeted, addressing @TwitterSupport. “How is this fake account allowed to be up for hours last night?”
“Well … I’ll admit I just got scammed,” tweeted another. “This isn’t real. I’ll look like an idiot to warn someone. There are 2 “ll”s in elon. I didn’t even look since it was a reply.”
Musk seems to be a favorite of the scammers, who tend to impersonate high-profile figures—others include President Donald Trump and John McAfee, a bitcoin evangelist and the founder of the eponymous software-security firm. The deception has become so rampant this year that Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, changed his Twitter display name in March to “Vitalik ‘Not giving away ETH’ Buterin.”
The schemes can cost victims significant amounts of money. According to a July report from Kaspersky Lab, the cybersecurity company, these lurker-scammers have conned users out of 21,000 ETH—the currency exchange symbol for Ethereum—or more than $10 million, in the last year.
The account that tricked me this week has since been suspended, and the Blogger page has been removed. But there are many others, and when one gets kicked off, a new one arises. Some remain active for hours or even days. In May, a fraudulent account impersonating Kevin Pham, a cryptocurrency investor, remained online for three days. Wrangling these accounts is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole, and the moles are winning. “I want to know who is running the Etherium scambots! Mad skillz,” Musk tweeted earlier this month.
Twitter’s rules prohibit impersonating “individuals, groups, or organizations in a manner that is intended to or does mislead, confuse, or deceive others,” and the company has said it’s working on rooting out the fake accounts. “We’re aware of this form of manipulation and are proactively implementing a number of signals to prevent these types of accounts from engaging with others in a deceptive manner,” the company told The Verge in March.
But since then, the drizzle of scammers seems to have grown into a deluge. This week, 30 members of the cryptocurrency community—a mix of companies, exchanges, investors, traders, and others—published a letter addressed to the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Medium, urging him to take more action.
“The inability to fully address spam bots and maliciously false accounts is diluting the power of the platform for all companies, organizations and private individuals involved in the spaces of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency,” the letter said. “These accounts impersonate legitimate users, create scams and false giveaways, and falsify information in the public domain that distracts away from genuine information sharing.”
The heavy targeting of Musk is puzzling considering the entrepreneur doesn’t publicly dabble in cryptocurrency, and has said as much. “I literally own zero cryptocurrency, apart from .25 BTC that a friend sent me many years ago,” he tweeted in February.
But it makes sense when you picture the Venn diagram of innovative technologies, from Tesla to bitcoin, and the fans obsessed with both. And Musk is known for announcing whimsical, new creations on Twitter, much to the frenzied glee of his followers. His fans are collectors, grabbing pieces of Musk’s empire when they can—hats, flamethrowers, candy, shares. A cryptocurrency contest or giveaway, at first glance, appears like another collector’s item. For Musk’s loyal fans, it’s shiny and exciting. For scammers, it’s the perfect bait.