When Facebook accounts get hacked, victims call and email the company for help to little avail. Some have found a costly workaround: buying a virtual reality headset to get customer service.



Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we get all kinds of comments from listeners. They tell us they liked a story, or they didn't like a story or we should cover more news about dinosaurs. Recently, though, we started getting a lot of comments like this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I got an email at 5:02 saying somebody was trying to get into my Facebook account.

KELLY: And this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was desperate. I had no one else to contact because Facebook didn't have a phone number to call. There was no email to email.

KELLY: Their Facebook accounts had been hacked, and they were frustrated. We asked NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond to investigate. And a note - Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: One morning back in May, Angela McNamara woke up in Toronto to a foreboding email from Facebook.

ANGELA MCNAMARA: And it said, Angela, it appears that somebody is trying to log into your account. If this is not you, don't worry - we're keeping your account safe.

BOND: But that wasn't all.

MCNAMARA: So that came at, like, let's say 2:58 - 2:59 it says, your password has been changed. Another email, 3:00 a.m., two-factor authentication has been set up. And then from there, I'm just like, OK, it is gone.

BOND: She'd been hacked. She tried to stay calm and started going through Facebook's process to recover her account. She tried getting a backup code, resetting her password. Nothing worked. This has been happening to a lot of people lately. And when it does happen, good luck trying to call up Facebook to fix it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As automated voice) Thank you for calling Facebook user operations. Unfortunately, we do not offer phone support at this time.

BOND: There's no simple way to reach a real person by email, either. Instead, the company tells users to report hacked accounts through its website, where they're asked to upload a copy of a driver's license or passport to prove their identity. And many people who try it say this automated process often just doesn't work, like Jessie Marsala in Chicago.

JESSIE MARSALA: I spent hours and hours filling out these request forms. I sent these forms in morning, noon and night, multiple times a day, and nobody got back to me, not once.

BOND: Another person I talked to only got Facebook's system to accept her ID after she covered up everything but her name and photo with a Post-it note. Facebook says because of the pandemic, it has fewer people available to confirm IDs. It uses artificial intelligence, too, but it says the process is taking longer than usual. Now, losing Facebook may seem like a minor thing, but Marsala has been using the social network since high school. And every morning she likes to look at its memories feature, which highlights old posts.

MARSALA: And that's just a way I used to like to start my day and kind of reflect on, you know, what I did two years ago or what was I thinking seven years ago, just kind of see, you know, are my thoughts still the same? Do I still have the same outlooks on life? Things like that.

BOND: So this is a big deal to her, and she and other people in her situation, since they can't turn to Facebook, they're turning to each other. On websites like Twitter and Reddit, lots of people are sharing stories of being hacked and tips about what to do. One of them is Ben Coleman, a teacher in Massachusetts who has a side hustle writing books that teach you how to fold origami bonsai trees.

BEN COLEMAN: The very first concern after realizing that I was getting hacked is that these folks might be able to gain access to my business's bank account, and that would be a disaster.

BOND: He managed to lock his Facebook account before the hackers could get in, but he wasn't able to unlock it. That is, until after NPR got in touch with Facebook. The company says it has not seen a recent uptick in hacking. And security experts I spoke with say there's lots of reasons hackers target Facebook accounts - selling them on the black market, scamming users' friends for money. Some even use hacked accounts to push out disinformation. But the people I talked to aren't just frustrated with the hackers. They're unhappy with Facebook, too.

COLEMAN: I want Facebook to have a customer service department that some old 86-year-old lady can call up and say, my account has been hacked - please help me get back in. I want a human being on the telephone.

BOND: A Facebook spokesperson says its online help center is available at any time, but the company knows it needs to improve and plans to invest more in customer support. Meanwhile, some people are going to extreme lengths to get their accounts back. It turns out Facebook does offer better customer service, but to get it, you need to buy a virtual reality headset made by Oculus, a company Facebook owns. Brandon Sherman in California did just that.

BRANDON SHERMAN: I ultimately broke down and bought a $300 Oculus Quest 2, have it sitting in the box right here next to me. And as soon as I emailed customer support with the serial number, I got an immediate response.

BOND: Sherman plans to return the unopened Oculus. And while he's glad the strategy worked, he doesn't think it's very fair.

SHERMAN: Unfortunately, what's happening to a lot of people is, like, the only way you can get any customer service is if you prove that you've actually purchased something from them.

BOND: Up in Toronto, Angela McNamara heard about the Oculus trick on Reddit and thought it was a joke, but she figured, why not? So, like Sherman, she ordered an expensive gadget she never planned to use and contacted customer support for Oculus.

MCNAMARA: I did kind of what everybody else did - bought it, didn't open it and returned it.

BOND: And just like that, she was back on Facebook.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

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