Facebook experiments with profiting from celebrity stalkers and spammers

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Privacy, Spam

Tom Daley. Image from ShutterstockFacebook plans to charge UK users as much as £10.68 to send messages to top-tier celebrities (think Olympic gold medallist diver Tom Daley or former children’s laureate Michael Rosen) in an effort to stamp out spam.

And, well, duh, to make money.

According to The Sunday Times, Facebook has already quietly slid the charges into place for British users who want to send a message to celebrities and other people outside their circle of friends.

The social media Megatron is testing a sliding scale of fees based on how popular it deems a given person.

One step below the pricey Most Popular types are demi-gods such as Salman Rushdie, the Booker prize-winning author, as well as American rapper Snoop Dogg, either of whom will cost users £10.08 to message.

And then there are those deemed, more or less, schlubs, such as normal citizens or minor celebrities, who go for a mere 71p (which, in US pennies, is God knows what, given that online currency converters can't be bothered to list one and probably wouldn't bend over to pick one up).

[It's about $1.08 - Ed]

Bargain-basement humans who can be messaged for 71p include comedienne Miranda Hart and TV documentary maker Louis Theroux, according to ITV News.

Facebook must have liked the results of its experiment with charging this type of fee when it gave it a whirl in the US in December.

In that limited trial, Facebook let select users message strangers for $1.

Facebook explained the charge as a spam deterrent:

"Several commentators and researchers have noted that imposing a financial cost on the sender may be the most effective way to discourage unwanted messages and facilitate delivery of messages that are relevant and useful."

At the time, TechCrunch's Josh Constine suggested that it likely wouldn't turn into a major source of revenue for Facebook, given that users were given a frequency cap - at least in the first trial - of one paid message per week.

Fair enough. But that was then, and this is now, and that $1 to message any stranger at all has in this incarnation ballooned into £10 a pop, or $15.

That's some serious cash. This could be a healthy revenue stream were Facebook to lift the frequency limit.

Bandaged thumbI hope Facebook doesn't lift the frequency limit. The only people who could possibly send cartons of spam to high-priced celebrities are, likely, a bit obsessive. Hopefully, a deterrent such as high cost might curb their behavior.

More important, of course, is that with the frequency limit in place, this could be a strong deterrent for spam.

Given the low conversion rates for spam marketing, forcing spammers to pay fees to message strangers could force the meager returns to pale in comparison to the costs of messaging.

I can't think of a downside for everyday Facebook users.

Unless you have, say, thousands of long-lost siblings to message who are outside of your circle of friends, the fee sounds like a reasonable tradeoff for cutting off a free, easy way for spammers to get to us - whether "us" constitutes gold medalists, famous musicians and artists, gold medalists, or just normal schlubs like us.

But surely I can limit those who can contact me to "Friends Only"?

In case you thought it was possible to prevent someone you didn't know sending you a message on Facebook because of your privacy settings - think again.

Who can contact you on Facebook?

In December, due to user apathy, Facebook was able to push through changes to its privacy and data use policies.

One of the outcomes is that you can no longer limit the people who can send a message to you to "Friends only". See how they changed it to "*mostly* just friends"?

Don't forget you should join the Naked Security from Sophos Facebook page, where we keep you up-to-date on the latest scams, security and privacy issues affecting Facebook users.


Image of Tom Daley courtesy of Shutterstock.

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19 Responses to Facebook experiments with profiting from celebrity stalkers and spammers

  1. "In December, due to user apathy, Facebook was able to push through changes to its privacy and data use policies."

    That wasn't voter apathy.
    That was FaceBook's sleight of hand.

    They announced the proposed changes at very short notice, set the 'bar' impossibly high, made the voting page as inaccessible and buggy as possible and sat back and laughed at us all.

    Seems that Sophos has a very short memory.

    • Facebook obeyed its own rules, whether you liked them or not.

      When I referred to "apathy" I meant that facebook emailed its entire userbase, telling them about the vote - and the vast majority of people (sadly) never bothered.

      I'm not suggesting that I liked how Facebook went about it, just that if you didn't bother to vote you can't moan about it now.

  2. linga · 560 days ago

    where can i find the setting for messaging?

    • Log into Facebook. In the top right hand corner you should see a cog. Next to it, you should see a padlock.

      Click on the padlock, and you should be able to access some shortcuts to your privacy settings - including this one.

  3. Alan · 560 days ago

    In a roundabout way, I can see this making things worse. Since these messages will have been charged, the recipients are more likely to think they're important, or at the very least genuine communication (as is the intention). However, the spammers will soon become aware of this and resort to more credit card fraud to pay to send messages that they know the recipients are a lot more likely to read (and click on any links).

    Of course, maybe I'm just being cynical. Not that it matters to me either way, as I don't use Facebook... :-)

  4. Sandy · 560 days ago

    I can think of a potential downside. How will this affect the numerous charities and benevolent organisations which thousands of followers? Will I have to pay to message them? What of messaging those celebrities who are actively engaged in raising awareness of good causes? How will this limit the ability of individuals and organisations to promote issues and engage with supporters?

  5. Buck7455 · 560 days ago

    If I were a celebrity I'd demand that Facebook turn over any money made by them to me. After all, it would be MY celebrity status that they used to "justify" charging those fees. What Facebook is doing is not too far removed from selling a T-shirt with my name/image on it for profit.
    BTW, does anybody know if Facebook is losing users or gaining them? It seems that every time they make the news it is because they are ticking people off. I can't imagine that people would put up with this kind of treatment forever.

  6. I think it would be great if Facebook could allow us to charge for *any* messages that were sent to us via the social network, and indeed if we could set the price. Especially if we could get a percentage of the proceeds.

    Failing that, I think it would be nice if it went back to the old system of letting us control who and who couldn't message us.

  7. Keith D. · 560 days ago

    If they cared about spam, as it's suggested, then the frequency cap would be the most effective deterrent and all that's needed. It's really hard to turn a profit spamming strangers if you can only message one of them per week. There's no need to impose any monetary cost at all.

    Anyone who's checked their snail mail box or answered their telephone to an unrecognized or blocked number recently should recognize that spammers have no issue with spending money to make money, so that isn't a deterrent, it only keeps ordinary non-spammers from participating-- and gives operators (or rather enablers) like Facebook with an additional income stream.

    It doesn't take a genius to figure that out.

  8. Keith D. · 560 days ago

    Graham, Facebook DIDN'T email or even notify its entire userbase about the vote. I never had any notification or email from them, and I check my spam box religiously for phishing attempts so I would've seen one had I gotten one. And I was logging into Facebook several times daily at the time, and there was no notification on the website either. The ONLY reason I knew anything about the vote was because an astute friend had seen an obscure blog post about it from one of her friends.

    None of my friends or anyone else I know who pays attention to that sort of thing that isn't a public figure in the either media or IT security industry that I talked to ever heard about it until the vote was over either unless it was from a friend's post. But Facebook sure DID send everyone notifications of the changes as soon as they were implemented.

    That vote was an outright scam based on all the information I've gathered about it if you ask me.

  9. They're already doing this in the U.S. They've also prohibited social behavior (liking status updates, etc.) and networking (friend requesting new people). For a week, I couldn't even send a direct message to someone on my friends list, and I've never done anything to justify the impediments to my usage of the site.

  10. SomewhatPained · 560 days ago

    "Profiting off of"?! "Profiting from", surely, even in the US?

  11. 2 downsides. 1) most FB users are clueless as hell about the internet in general and FB specifically and still have no idea that there is an "other" box. 2) I run a non-profit dog rescue group and have to pay to message people who have commented on something on our page and are interested in either volunteering or getting a dog.

  12. It's not my normal job to defend Facebook, but I received the email from Facebook - and know of many others who did.

    As well as widespread tech media coverage, we also saw readers who were freaked out by the email. See http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2012/11/22/facebo...

  13. For a while now it's costed $100 to write Mr. Facebook himself.

  14. Gadget · 560 days ago

    I am wondering about the detrimental effect this will have on swap and shop type groups where many people of lesser income buy and sell their items. Most of the people on these groups would not be in your friends list, and people would not be able to afford to pay to message each other. Private messaging is the way everyone makes payment and pickup arrangments as you do not want to broadcast your address, phone number, etc. to a big group of strangers. If there is not a way around these charges I can see such groups becoming extinct.

  15. Joe · 560 days ago

    I don't think spam can be eliminated, but a small charge ( a penny or less) to message someone you aren't friends with would probably cut spam by a lot, speculatively 90% because the response rate is so low.

    A really neat trick would to be to give the recipient a button to click to cancel the charge because the message is wanted.

  16. Sootie · 560 days ago

    I *love* your advice, there are serious security problems with facebook and its now possible to get messages from random people. There is also now money involved and its a big concern.

    To deal with this Sophos's security blog recommends you continue using facebook as normal and add their facebook page for free marketing! I mean security tips...

    How about a real recommendation like delete your facebook account (and advise on how you really delete it!) social networks create a security flaw and a massive opportunity for social engineering and identity theft. Also anything to do with monetizing facebook reeks of a scam to me

    • We're not recommending that anyone continues to use Facebook, and we've written many articles in the past explaining privacy issues on the site and how you can quit Facebook if you like.

      What we are saying is that *if* you use Facebook (as many many people do) you might at least keep yourself informed of the threats - by joining our Facebook page.

      Hope that helps explain our position.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.