Last week, I received a request to connect on LinkedIn with a woman named Mara, a senior executive from McKinsey. Since the profile matched the sort of people I tend to connect with and work with, I agreed.
Pretty soon after we’d connected, I got a direct message with one word: “Hi.” Not very McKinsey.
You probably know where this is going, but I thought it was interesting to see what would happen. Like every male on Facebook, I get frequent friend offers to connect from scantily clad “women” offering sex. Only the dimmest of humans don’t realize these people are fake.
But I didn’t expect it to happen on LinkedIn, so I was intensely interested in how it came about. Mara’s photo was an attractive but professional-looking woman who could easily have been ethnically Italian, matching her first and last name in the profile. The LinkedIn profile showed degrees from schools in India and a rapid but conceivable rise through the ranks at McKinsey, culminating in a position that reported to the board of directors.
I did what I could to verify the account and see what was fake. The account had made comments and reacted to posts on LinkedIn in a plausible way. Image search revealed that the photo wasn’t online anywhere easy to find. A web search on the name and “McKinsey” turned up only the LinkedIn profile; any real executive would likely have a larger Web footprint. And the account only had 66 connections, pretty low for a McKinsey executive. The profile specified no gender or pronouns.
I should have checked the date on which the profile was created, which was 2022 — well after the start of this McKinsey executive’s “career.”
While there was no proof that “she” was fake, one thing that made me suspicious was that the URL of the profile didn’t match the woman’s name — instead it was a name that appeared ethnically Indian. (I didn’t search the name that appeared in the profile URL; I should have.)
Here’s a little of my conversation with the questionable account — keep in mind that I was trying to string her along:
Me: What’s on your mind?
Mara: I was thinking about your career. What do you use for inspiration when you write?
Me: If you really work for McKinsey, send me an email from your McKinsey email account to [my throwaway email address]. I’d like to verify who you are.
Mara: Introducing my profession is just a courtesy that belongs to me. I don’t think making new friends has to be your way. I’m one of the shareholders behind the company. So the company e-mail isn’t used to prove who’s who.
Me: Why did you want to talk to me?
The refusal to email was proof enough for me: no real McKinsey person would refuse to send an email.
I reported the profile to LinkedIn
It’s easy enough to ignore these proposals. But in contrast to Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn is generally dependable and free of fakes and scammers. As a public service, I decided to report the profile to get “Mara” off the platform. A simple search pointed to a instructions on LinkedIn for reporting fakes, using the same control in LinkedIn you can use to block people.
Shortly after I reported the profile, the photo disappeared from Mara’s profile.
About four days later, I heard from the account again. The new name matched the URL. All of the McKinsey experience had vanished. Now the account appeared to be a perfectly respectable young guy completing his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management. He wrote:
Hey Josh, my account had been hacked and I have just now recovered it. You can ignore any prior communication from the same. It was most likely a scam attempt
This gentleman told me he had been trying to get his profile back for weeks. It’s unclear if it was my report or his repeated attempts that allowed him to regain control of his account, but I’m pleased he can pursue his career goals now without his professional identity being stolen.
I did wonder whether the combination of a first and last name change, a change in profile photo, and the addition of a while bunch of new experience should have set off alarm bells at LinkedIn.
What you can learn from this
It’s easy and glib to say that the lesson of this is “Beware scammers everywhere.” There’s no reason that LinkedIn should be any more free of fakes like this than other social network. But in my experience, fake profiles for the purpose of sexual coercion, so common on Facebook, are unusual on LinkedIn.
A recent survey did find that 91% of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances on LinkedIn. But I’m betting that reprehensible behavior comes from disgusting but genuine users. Quit it, guys – let’s start with that.
I also think our responsibility as members of a highly effective and generally safe online community is to keep it that way. If you see something like this, it’s worth a moment to investigate as I did, and report problems. The request to email from a corporate account is a very simple way to help verify someone’s identity.
If we all did this, the scammers on LinkedIn would continue to be rare. This scammer, having gained control of the profile through a scam of some kind, put in a fair amount of work to build a fake resume and profile, and got no return at all. I’m willing to put in some effort to report such problems on LinkedIn. I’ll also be doing it on on Meta’s new social network Threads, in an attempt to keep it free of the human pollution that afflicts Facebook and Twitter.
It’s not just about me. It’s also about the guy at the Indian Institute of Management, whose career could be damaged by this sort of thing, and all the other people whose accounts could be at risk. Put in a little effort to keep social networks clean. It’s the least you can do.