Tired of Fake Friend Requests, Dumb Videos, and Scams? Here's How to Make Facebook and Instagram Fun Again. - Consumer Reports (2024)

Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram used to be low-key places to share photos, news, and more. But in recent years they’ve become trickier for many people—venues where scams, annoying ads, and unknown friend requests live alongside real friends’ posts. Everyone seems to have a bad experience to share.

For instance, Patti Regehr, a retired teacher in northern California, heard from puzzled Facebook friends that they were getting new friend requests from her. The reason? Someone had stolen Regehr’s photo, created a bogus FB page, and started impersonating her.

In this article

  • Should You Say Yes to a Friend Request From a Stranger?
  • How Can You See Fewer Ads for Shoes—or Politicians?
  • How Can You Avoid Annoying Posts From an Online Friend?
  • Is It Safe to Buy Stuff on Facebook Marketplace?
  • What Can You Do to Keep From Getting Hacked or Scammed?
  • How Can You Protect Your Privacy in Facebook Groups?

Paulette J. Phillips, a regular QVC.com shopper in central Wisconsin, saw an ad with the QVC logo for bargain-priced brand-name shoes on Facebook. She bought them with her debit card and later got a fraud alert from her bank saying that someone in New York had used her card for a $50 purchase.

And Paul Signorelli, a technology trainer in the San Francisco Bay Area who consults on how to use social media safely, proved that even the experts can be fooled when he clicked on a video link from someone posing as a friend. “Wrong decision,” he says, “because it wasn’t from that person . . . and I got hacked.”

These problems affect millions of people. But you can sidestep many of these headaches and reclaim your enjoyment of the most popular social media sites, particularly Facebook and Instagram. Here are answers to common questions from CR and social media experts.

Should You Say Yes to a Friend Request From a Stranger?

Sixty-seven percent of people who use social media have received friend requests from people they don’t know, according to a nationally representative CR survey (PDF) of 2,042 U.S. adults conducted in April 2024. Before accepting, see if you have Facebook friends in common, and then check with them. Is this a legitimate contact? Go to the requester’s profile to see who they’re affiliated with and what they post. And if anything seems fishy, say no.

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“There is the danger of people with malicious intent trying to become your friend to lure you into a scam,” says Larry Magid, co-founder and CEO of ConnectSafely, a nonprofit that creates resources for safe tech use. Or they may want to exploit your friends list, which was the case for Patti Regehr. (She reported the incident to Facebook, which removed the impersonator’s account.)

“On Facebook, your safety is also your friends’ safety,” says Macaulee Cassaday, program director of Cyber-Seniors, a nonprofit that connects young volunteers with older people who want tech help. Remember, if you say yes to a request and then regret it, you can unfriend the person.

How Can You See Fewer Ads for Shoes—or Politicians?

If you’ve viewed one Facebook or Instagram ad too many for multivitamins or slingback sandals, hit the three dots at the upper right and choose “Hide ad.” Or click on “Why am I seeing this ad?” to pull up several options, including “Hide all ads from this advertiser.”

Did you watch some cute cat reels and now regret it because your feed is flooded with them? Tap those same three dots and choose “Show less” to cut back.

To make broad changes, go into Settings and click on “Accounts Center,” then “Ad preferences” and the “Customize ads” tab. There you can see all of the companies that have been sending you advertising and control their access individually. Or you can click on “Ad topics” and ask to “See less” of certain topics, such as political ads, or ads for anything from alcohol to gambling to parenting. (These instructions are for when you’re using a computer; they differ slightly if you’re using a smartphone.)

If your Facebook and Instagram accounts are linked, your preferences will be changed on both platforms.

How Can You Avoid Annoying Posts From an Online Friend?

You may love your brother-in-law, but not the political rants he puts on Facebook or the silly memes he insists on reposting to Instagram. You have several options to discreetly regain some peace of mind without causing a family rift. First, you can “unfollow” a contact on both platforms, which means you won’t see their posts in your feed, though you’ll still be connected. Facebook lets you “snooze” a friend, so you won’t see their posts for 30 days, which could be just the break you need. On Instagram, “muting” people keeps their posts out of your feed. And you can “block” someone, which stops them from seeing your posts and you from seeing theirs. Here comes the discretion part: Facebook and Instagram won’t alert the other person that you’ve taken any of these steps.

Tired of Fake Friend Requests, Dumb Videos, and Scams? Here's How to Make Facebook and Instagram Fun Again. - Consumer Reports (1)

Illustration: Sam Island Illustration: Sam Island

Is It Safe to Buy Stuff on Facebook Marketplace?

Be careful: You’re buying from an individual, not from Facebook. But Facebook Marketplace can have great deals, and many people buy items without incident. The experts’ tips: First, check out the seller’s profile to see their selling history and their numerical rating—1 (worst) to 5 (best)—from people who have bought from them. Communicate only through messaging so that you have a record if you need to report a problem. And be on the alert for red flags, such as a seller who asks for a deposit to hold something or one who threatens to rescind an offer if you don’t pick up an item right away. If you plan to meet to buy something, agree on the price first, meet in a public place, and bring a friend.

What Can You Do to Keep From Getting Hacked or Scammed?

For starters, set up a unique, strong password for every online account, including email accounts, retailer accounts, and, yes, social media accounts. (A password manager can help.) Use two-factor (aka multifactor) authentication to add another layer of protection.

Next, remember that the more information you put out on social media—say, the names and ages of your kids and grandkids—the more information can be gathered by people who might want to scam you. Never share sensitive information like where you bank, your address, or your phone number. And post only what you’d be comfortable sharing publicly, no matter what privacy settings you use.

If your account has been hacked, you may be locked out. Follow the social media platform’s account recovery instructions; for Facebook, go to facebook.com/hacked to get started. (Your chances of account recovery are better if you’ve followed the security practices we’ve listed.)

Once you recover control, you’ll need to change your password and review your account recovery information, such as your email address. Check for messages the hacker sent from your account or for new friends you don’t recognize. Finally, alert your friends in an email or by texting or posting.

Tired of Fake Friend Requests, Dumb Videos, and Scams? Here's How to Make Facebook and Instagram Fun Again. - Consumer Reports (2)

Illustration: Sam Island Illustration: Sam Island

How Can You Protect Your Privacy in Facebook Groups?

There’s a difference between public and private groups. If you plan to share a lot in a new Facebook group—for example, baby photos or details of your forthcoming road trip—set it up to be private. (There’s no 100 percent guarantee of privacy, Signorelli says, “because if somebody takes a screenshot and reposts it on their account, then it’s out in the public.”)

What if you’re joining an existing group? Your privacy settings dictate what other people will learn from your profile, Cassaday says. To see the options, use the Facebook Privacy Checkup. (To navigate there, click on your profile pic, then “Settings & Privacy,” then “Privacy Checkup.”) This will give you a number of ways to make things more private. For example, under “Who can see what you share,” you can choose an audience of only friends for your birthday, current city, and posts. And you can create a digital avatar for your profile picture instead of uploading a real photo.

You can post anonymously in FB groups if the administrators allow it, but your name will still be visible to the administrators and moderators.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2024 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Tired of Fake Friend Requests, Dumb Videos, and Scams? Here's How to Make Facebook and Instagram Fun Again. - Consumer Reports (3)

Jennifer Cook

Jennifer Cook is an award-winning freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on health, wellness, mind-body, and environmental topics. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley in a farmhouse built in the 1840s. An avid walker and dancer, she feels fortunate to live near wetlands and wild things, and to have easy access to culture and good food.

Tired of Fake Friend Requests, Dumb Videos, and Scams? Here's How to Make Facebook and Instagram Fun Again. - Consumer Reports (2024)
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