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Why have spam TXHSFB live streams taken over Twitter? And what can be done to stop it?

Fraudulent accounts posing as the likes of the UIL, NFHS and Texan Live have flooded Twitter since 2020 with the intention of acquiring personal data and credit card information.

The day after Thanksgiving in Texas features nearly 100 third-round high school football playoff games across the state, played between some of the nation’s best teams in the largest stadiums with unmatched amateur talent.

It also includes a stomach full of turkey and the trimmings, cold weather and leftovers waiting in the fridge. Hey, who could blame you if you’d choose a day on the couch in sweatpants over a trek to a cold football stadium?

The good news: It’s 2022, and most — if not all — Texas high school football games are broadcast online and are easily accessible for fans inclined to take in the action without leaving home.

The bad news: You open Twitter, search for a desired game and stumble upon hundreds of different accounts posting what you’re led to believe are legitimate streaming options.

Except they aren’t.

Since 2020, Twitter has seen a rise in spam accounts masquerading as trusted news sources and verified broadcast outlets that promote fraudulent links to Texas high school football live streams in an attempt to, largely, gather personal data and credit card information.

Those scammers, which look to prey on fans and family members alike, can be mistaken for the University Interscholastic League or the National Federation of High School Sports at a glance. And with the holidays near — and with those playoff games held sometimes hundreds of miles from any given school’s campus — the interest in live streams only rises. So, too, does the exposure to spam accounts.

Those who find their social media feeds flooded with these accounts on a weekly basis are now working to educate the could-be deceived.

“They’re everywhere,” Prosper ISD athletic director Valerie Little said.

‘It looks legit, right?’

Texan Live, a Dave Campbell’s Texas Football owned broadcast network, is among the state’s most copied brands. Those fraudulent accounts — like @texanlive4, a deviation from the legitimate @Texan_Live — can sometimes go to great lengths to deceive a would-be subscriber. Each Tweet includes a custom graphic for the game that it’s promoting, and it tags specific players, teams and school districts.

One post, from @texanlive4, promoted an area-round game between Dekaney and Cy Falls. The link — which reads linktree.com/texanlive — directs those who click to a separate web page with Texan Live branding, though its not the same webpage as a legitimate Texan Live landing page.

The tweet tagged three Dekaney players, and it was shared by the high school itself. Another from that same account, with a link to an area-round game between New Caney and Tomball with similar tags and graphics, was shared by Tomball’s football team.

Five of that account’s most recent 12 tweets, as of Wednesday, were shared by either a high school, a team account, a coach or an athlete.

“They’re sneaky,” said Matt Stepp, a high school football insider for Dave Campbell’s Texas Football who can often be seen calling out spam accounts on Twitter on any given Friday. “And if you’re not careful, they’ll get you. Coaches and players often times — and even some official school accounts — they’re not paying attention, and they get tricked.”

An example of a spam account masquerading as Texan Live, a Dave Campbell's Texas Football...
An example of a spam account masquerading as Texan Live, a Dave Campbell's Texas Football owned broadcast network.(Shawn McFarland)

Stepp noticed an uptick in spam accounts after the UIL loosened its Friday night live stream policies in 2020. Section 868(c) of the UIL Constitution and Contest Rules previously barred live telecasts, but the UIL lifted the prohibition to help adhere to COVID-19 policies, and in 2021, ruled that the broadcasts could continue.

“Everyone knew before 2020 that if someone posted an online link to a Friday game, it was spam,” Stepp said. “It wasn’t valid; there was a rule against it. Once the UIL opened that door, I think they unknowingly opened up a Pandora’s box for scammers and fraudsters.”

What’s made Texas high school football such a desirable market for scammers? First, consider the number of teams in the state. There are 1,253 UIL teams alone, and then you add TAPPS, SPC or other private schools.

A high number of teams equals a high number of games, and a high number of games equals heightened opportunities to deceive someone with a shady link. Add the interest of the sport — both locally and nationally — and the opportunities bloom.

Izzat Alsmadi, department chair of Texas A&M-San Antonio’s’ computing and cyber security program, said that some accounts can originate from outside of the United States while others may be locally operated by real human beings. Parents, fans and other family members, Alsmadi said, can make for prime targets.

“They don’t know, and they don’t check for information,” Alsmadi said. “They disseminate before checking information, and that’s the scary part.”

Other accounts may not be as convincing.

One, with the NFHS logo as its profile picture and “my little girl” as its username, has more than 1,700 tweets promoting fraudulent live stream links for football games across the state and country. Each tweet includes the same graphic, which features a MaxPreps logo and a photo of an Austin Lake Travis football player.

Another, named “Dallas network,” used The Dallas Morning News’ logo as its profile picture and a customized graphic to promote a W.T. White vs. Frisco Reedy first-round playoff game. The News does not live stream football games, and even if it did, it’d at least capitalize the “n” in “network.” Similar accounts mimicking The Houston Chronicle, The San Antonio Express-News, NBC, CBS and even ESPN have made the rounds as well.

A screenshot of "Dallas network", a spam Twitter account that posts fraudulent high school...
A screenshot of "Dallas network", a spam Twitter account that posts fraudulent high school football livestream links.(Shawn McFarland)

“It’s amazing to me what individuals will do to collect personal data,” said Todd Lamb, Dallas ISD’s athletics communication director. “Some are what you would consider professionals. They know the accounts that are out there, whether it’s the UIL or Dave Campbell’s or Texan Live, or playing off the TXHSFB hashtag. You see them tweak a spelling, or it’s one character off, and it looks like it’s legit, right?”

An example of a Twitter account that posted a spam link to a high school basketball livestream.
An example of a Twitter account that posted a spam link to a high school basketball livestream.(Shawn McFarland)

The phishing accounts aren’t just exclusive to football. Duncanville and Lake Highlands — The News’ first and second-ranked 6A basketball teams — played on Saturday at the The Match Up, a tournament hosted at Prosper Rock Hill. A simple Twitter search of “Duncanville” and “Lake Highlands” turned up more than 20 different spam accounts (all using the same format) that had promoted a phishing link masquerading as a live stream.

One, titled “Townhs 889187″ that lists its occupation as “marine”, used the NFHS logo as its avatar and The News’ SportsDayHS logo as its banner photo. It has more than 37,000 tweets, the most recent being promotions for high school football, basketball, soccer and volleyball live streams across the country.

Another account that promoted a Duncanville/Lake Highlands stream, named “Babuxxtips1″, has nearly 30,000 tweets and posted more than 100 phishing links on Nov. 19 alone.

“Twitter is kind of the wild west,” Stepp said. “You’re kind of playing Whac-A-Mole. I try and report the accounts and block them, but more just pop up.”

‘We don’t have a magic formula’

So, sure, a few seconds of inspection quickly show the obvious flaws and red flags built into these accounts. Really, a marine pushing high school football streams? But the athletes who are sometimes tagged in these tweets — who see a familiar logo, and sometime even its team’s account tagged in the body of the post — may not be able to discern the differences between a spam account and a legitimate one.

That, Little said, is where school district intervention and education comes in.

“A lot of them will see [Prosper ISD Athletics] tagged and assume it’s safe,” Little said. “We don’t have a magic formula or magic solution to it. We’re just trying to educate them. Slow down; make sure you know what you’re doing; don’t just retweet everything.”

Therein lies the largest issue. As Little said, there is no perfect solution for mitigation beyond social media literacy. Lamb posts verified links from Dallas ISD’s social media accounts, and has shown coaches how to report and block spam accounts. Stepp believes that reported accounts (and subsequently suspended accounts) will dismay those who create them. Alsmadi said that while those steps are important, the onus is on the social networks themselves to uphold stricter security policies.

To make matters all the more difficult, the continued rise of spam accounts targeting Texas high school football fans coincides with ongoing turbulence at Twitter. Since Elon Musk acquired Twitter in October, more than 1,000 employees — including chief cybersecurity officer Lea Kissner — have either resigned or been fired.

“This thing is going to grow,” Alsmadi said.

Ben Peck, a reporter for KAGS News in Bryan, posted last week that Twitter had promoted a fraudulent UIL account (@uiltexas4) that had been posting spam links. That spam account has since been suspended, and the UIL’s legitimate Twitter account — verified with more than 100,000 followers — had posted a link to over 100 UIL-approved streams for the area round of the football playoffs the day prior, most of which were run through the NFHS, Texan Live or a school’s own broadcast network.

The UIL, in an email to The News, advised that schools communicate directly from their social media accounts to promote verified streams, and that fans, players and families should only use links provided by their respective district as opposed to searching on Twitter or Google to find one.

“It’s easy to fall for,” Lamb said. “But we owe it to our kids and their families to help them protect their personal information.”

On Twitter: @McFarland_Shawn

Find more high school sports coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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