Hacking of Facebook accounts to defraud people has become a “major issue” for the site, its head of European public policy, Lord Allan, has said.

The site is implementing new ways of detecting when accounts have been hacked and is adding warnings if it is accessed via unusual locations or methods.

Allan said that hacking would be countered by sophisticated methods of tracking user behaviour. He said: “If you’re logging in from an unusual location you’ll get extra security questions and if you want to log in by a new device [Facebook] notifies you by SMS or email.” He added that the company’s “site integrity” project — which aims to track suspicious activity — is developing new ways to protect its 500 million users.

Ronald K. Noble, secretary general of law enforcement agency Interpol, last week revealed that his Facebook identity was targeted by individuals seeking access to information on criminals. He said: “Interpol’s information security incident response team discovered two Facebook profiles attempting to assume my identity as Interpol’s secretary general. One of the impersonators was using this profile to obtain information on fugitives targeted during our recent Operation Infra Red.” Among the new security methods are “name verification”, where someone logging on from a new location is shown photos of friends and asked to verify their names. That is simple for the real user, but almost impossible for anyone else. Hacking continues to generate headlines for Facebook, which has 26 million monthly unique users in the U.K. In a case noted by the Sunday Times, Abigail Pickett, a British student in Colombia, found her account was being used to ask friends for money on the pretext she was “stranded” in another country. Facebook told her the account was being accessed from Nigeria.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the site has “complex automated systems that work behind the scenes to detect and flag Facebook accounts that are likely to be compromised”, adding that once “phony” messages are detected then all instances of that message are deleted.

The FBI had raised concerns about fraudsters hacking into Facebook users’ accounts and duping their friends out of money. The site’s international law enforcement efforts are overseen by a former FBI agent who worked on cyber-crime before joining Facebook in 2005.

The spokeswoman added: “Unlike other websites, or email, or even the phone, we provide our users with robust reporting tools to report any content they are unsure of and anything which violates our terms will be removed quickly.”

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010