Imagine that one day you're kicked off Facebook. It happens, regularly. You may not know why exactly. It looks like an algorithm may have done it — and now you need to reach a human being at the company to get back on. NPR has interviewed more than two dozen users in that situation — all people who rely on Facebook to do their work, make their living.
Their stories, which we'll share in a separate article, made us wonder: If you needed to reach Facebook, what would you do?
Many people would go online and search for "Facebook customer service."
We tried that, and got this number: 844-735-4595. It was prominently displayed as the top search result on Google. Google even made it a "featured snippet" — that is, a result highlighted in a box at the top, enhanced to draw user attention and lend credibility.
Please do not call it. You will get someone real — just not from Facebook.
The first time NPR called, someone picked up and then put the phone down — maybe on a table. You could hear mumbling in the room. It felt suspicious.
So NPR gave the number to Pindrop, a company that specializes in phone fraud. A Pindrop researcher, who has to remain anonymous for his work, called up and recorded as he pretended to be a Facebook user in distress.
A call center operator named "Steven" — who, according to Pindrop analysis, is based in India — says: "Thanks for calling Facebook." He is pretending to be a Facebook employee.
The Pindrop researcher plays along and explains he is locked out of his Facebook account. He needs help getting reactivated.
"Steven" gives him very unusual advice: go to a Wal-Mart or a Target.
"Just walk up over there and tell them to provide you an iTunes card. OK? And on the backside of that iTunes card there would be a 16-digit security code."
Maybe you see where this is going.
Steven continues: "You need to call us back on this same number and provide me that 16-digit security code so that I can activate that access and we'll be giving you the password for your new — for your old account."
This is a scam. The top Google search result for "Facebook customer service" led to a person asking for codes on iTunes gift cards. This is a well-known method of stealing from innocent people online. (Both Apple and the Federal Trade Commission have issued alerts about it.)
That toll-free "Facebook" line was not just on Google. That number and others have been circulating on Facebook itself, on pages where users are asking for help, for at least a year. In one instance, a user asked whether the number was valid and a member of the company's Help Team responded: "There isn't a number to contact Facebook... It sounds like the email or notification you saw is likely a scam." It's unclear whether the Help Team member reported it to her superiors to investigate.
"Wow. Wow. Wow. That's crazy," says Marty Weintraub, founder of Aimclear Marketing. He wrote a leading industry book on Facebook advertising, long before the rest of the world realized the company would dominate the Internet economy. "This is an astonishing result."
He also wrote a book on how to manipulate search results, to get your brand or product up on top. He knows that companies monitor their search results, to see what their customers want, and that criminals and competitors try to exploit powerful brands. These are standard practices.
What Weintraub finds astonishing is that a term as basic as "Facebook customer service" slipped through the cracks.
"It's not like somebody's searching for 'Hey, what color are Mark Zuckerberg's socks?' It's not like it's something that's off the beaten path," Weintraub says. "So one would think that a company as large as Facebook would be monitoring [the] search engine results page for a major query surrounding their services."
According to Google data, "Facebook customer service" gets searched, on average, about 27,000 times a month in the U.S.
Weintraub says that is sizable, that Facebook should have known about it "almost the first minute" it came up, and that the company should have guarded its users. "I'd be so scared," he says. "These are people who are looking for help with the product and they're getting scammed. OMG."
NPR informed Facebook and Google about the scam line.
Facebook said it's been investigating the group associated with this toll-free number for some time; that this group is targeting many platforms; and it's up to Google to explain why it displays certain search results.
A Google spokesperson said in a statement that the company has taken steps to remove the fraudulent number.
Neither company explained how the prominent search result went unnoticed.
And to be clear, Facebook does not have a phone number for regular users to call. It does have an online help center, located here.
NPR's Aarti Shahani has started a page on Facebook for people to share concerns about the platform. It's called Tell Zuck. If you use Facebook for work, and find you're unable to reach the company, tell her your story at www.facebook.com/tellzuck.