Watch out for WhatsApp's deceptive 'friend in need' scam

WhatsApp urges users to press ‘friends and family’ seeking help via the service.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Text-based scams are a serious problem, according to research from Opinium, which says that 59% of Brits have been targeted in the last year. 

While the majority of these (46%) still take the traditional SMS approach, WhatsApp isn’t immune to the problem, with 13% of users claiming to have been targeted. 

This has led the Meta-owned company to begin a new campaign called “STOP. THINK. CALL. The stages are as follows: 

  1.  STOP — This step encourages people to not act on instinct, because time pressure can make even the most intelligent person act on emotion rather than logic.  

    "Make sure your WhatsApp two-step verification is switched on to protect your account; that you're happy with your privacy settings, and your six-digit pin is secure,” WhatsApp advises.
  2.  THINK — The next step encourages users to consider what’s going on, and whether there is anything suspicious about the request.  

    “Does this request make sense?”, WhatsApp asks. “Are they asking you to share a PIN code which they have had sent to you? Are they asking for money?”
  3.  CALL — While scammers can make a decent stab at mimicking what your average person might read like when typing, their voice is a dead give away, so give them a call. In all likelihood they won’t pick up or find reasons to claim they can’t talk, which is a red flag in itself.  

    “Only when you’re 100 percent sure the request is from someone you know and trust, should you consider it. If it turns out to be untrue, report It to Action Fraud,” WhatsApp’s advice concludes.

Two common WhatsApp scams that have made headlines in recent months are ‘relatives’ claiming they’ve switched phones and need money, and the theft of 2FA codes by scammers pretending to have sent theirs to the victim’s number. Both seem to be referred to in WhatsApp’s advice above.

While the former targets heart over head by explaining away the wrong number, the latter works because it comes from a familiar number, lulling victims into a false sense of security. Both can be effective and have serious consequences. 

"We want to remind people that we all have a role to play in keeping our accounts safe by remaining vigilant to the threat of scammers," Kathryn Harnett, policy manager at WhatsApp, commented. "We advise all users never to share their six-digit PIN code with others, not even friends or family, and recommend that all users set up two-step verification for added security.

"If you receive a suspicious message (even if you think you know who it's from), calling or requesting a voice note is the fastest and simplest way to check someone is who they say they are. 

“A friend in need is a friend worth calling," she added.