Every so often, state Rep. John Lesch (D-St. Pau), a former National Guardsman, will get a Facebook message. And he’ll get a little nervous.
Over the past four years, Lesch has gotten a few dozen messages from women he doesn’t know. They all tell him the same thing: Someone has been using pictures of him and his family to scam women over the internet.
“They were romanced into what they thought was a relationship,” Lesch says. Using the photos cobbled from his uniformed days and pictures of his kids, a complete stranger would craft a fake identity designed to be sympathetic. A struggling widower veteran looking for companionship. And maybe a little financial help.
Some of the women who’d message Lesch would admit that the stranger had taken them for money – usually a few hundred dollars, but nonetheless money they couldn’t afford to lose. A lot of them wouldn’t disclose whether or how much the stranger stole from them. Too embarrassing, Lesch supposes.
“And those are just the ones that have contacted me,” he says, the tip of the fake veteran widower iceberg.
Lesch is hardly alone in this strange experience. A recent story from Minnesota Public Radio revealed that numerous Minnesota National Guard members profiles had been used in similar schemes, to the extent the Guard has a designated staffer scanning social media for misuse of stolen identities.
Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens tells MPR: "They're really good, these impersonators, and so people are falling for this. They're sending money."
The scams have the most disastrous effects on the victims themselves, but ripples have washed up on the peripheries of Lesch’s life. It’s certainly made him think twice about whether he should post photos of his family on Facebook.
But, he adds, isn’t that what Facebook is for?
Over the weekend, Lesch got a message from another woman with a new scam made in his image. She asked if he had another Facebook profile under the name “Christ Oyakhilome.” If not, she said, someone was using his pictures and info to hit on women.
“I just thought you’d like to know that he’s saying your wife is dead and he’s single. It’s sad,” she wrote.
Lesch sent a report to Facebook. A person was pretending to be him for the purpose of committing a crime. Surely this was a breach of conduct.
What he got back was a perfunctory email thanking him for “letting us know about something you think may go against our Community Standards.” But Facebook could find nothing wrong. The stranger’s profile, with all of Lesch’s photos, was apparently fine.
So, of course, he posted about it on Facebook.
“Really? Come on, Facebook,” he wrote. “I heard Mark Zuckerberg is heading to Capitol Hill to tell them how Facebook does not need to be regulated. Get with the program or lawmakers will get to it for you.”
Facebook founder Zuckerberg has been called before Congress to answer for how private information from about 87 million uses was shared with a political data firm, Cambridge Analytica, and about what Facebook is doing to protect users from false information and nefarious advertisers.
It’s Lesch’s view that Facebook doesn’t truly care about protecting people – or at least not unless the company gets some bad press coverage. Meanwhile, he’s the one stuck doing tech support: collecting complaints, trying to get fake profiles shut down, and trying to figure out what he’s going to do with his own account.
All while one woman after another falls for a stranger with his face.
“It just makes me mad,” he says.