Miracle-cure and easy-money peddlers boost their products and schemes with phony news reports: Internet Scambusters #389
Fake news stories, bogus product reviews and even satirical websites can all fool us into believing something that's simply not true.
Sometimes the intention is to turn us on or off to a particular idea or purchase decision. Other times, it's supposed to be just entertainment.
In this week's issue we explain the latest tricks and techniques and offer some guidance on how to spot and avoid them.
Time to get going...
How Fake News Stories and Bogus News Websites Try to Deceive You
Fake news stories help crooks lure victims into all sorts of traps. We've reported previously on how scammers distribute emails with links to a sensational but fake news article or with an attachment that carries a deadly virus payload.
Either way, the aim is to install malware on your PC when you click the link or open the attachment.
But in a new twist, con merchants are trying to pass off their websites as genuine newspaper or TV sites to convince victims about whatever it is they're trying to sell.
The really frustrating thing is that often they are not breaking the law. They invent a legitimate-sounding name for their "publication" or fake TV news station and dress the web page up to look like it's a real report.
Pretending to be impartial, the report usually either promotes a particular product or explains how you can easily make a fortune on the Internet.
Sometimes, they carry videos that purport to be objective TV news reports explaining just how fantastic this new product or money-making idea is.
The aim is to either get you to hand over a lot of money for a questionable or even worthless purchase, or join a pyramid or multi-level marketing scheme, in which you then have to recruit others to buy from you and they must, in turn, find more people to join. And so on.
It's easy to get taken in but you can easily spot what these con artists are up to with two easy check steps:
* Be skeptical if the page is promoting a miracle product (like health cures or how to run your car on water) or an easy-money scheme. Remember that in real life these rarely, if ever, exist.
* Do a search on the name of the TV station or publication. If it's a scam, you'll generally find that there are no other pages or news reports from the same supposed newspaper or TV station.
In fact, you'll more likely find someone else reporting it as a con trick.
Satire sites -- for entertainment or mischief
While we're on the subject, it's worth mentioning another type of fake news site you might come across on the Internet.
These are so-called satire sites in which the operators just make up news stories -- often about political figures or celebrities.
Sometimes, their motive is to entertain -- just like a skit on a TV satire show like Saturday Night Live. Other times people with an axe to grind or just a desire to make mischief are at work.
There are several well-known and popular fake news sites, the best known probably being theonion.com. Their offerings can be very thought-provoking -- as long as you know what they're up to. In other words, "news" from The Onion is not true -- but it can be very funny.
More serious are sites that let people create their own hoax stories, for example claiming that an individual has been arrested. The user supplies the name and the site generates both the story and a link to it.
The important point here is never to act on or pass on any information you read or view unless you know for sure whether it's true or false. Then you can let the recipient know.
Bogus product and travel reviews
Another sneaky and dishonest trick that's become increasingly common on the Internet is the creation of bogus reviews for products and services.
A long time ago, we reported on web awards that charge fees. You pay your money and you get your five stars.
More recently, this sort of scheme has been used by less reputable software producers to create the impression they have one of the best products on the market.
And now, with the advent and widespread use of consumer product reviews, a similar technique fools people into thinking a book they're considering buying or a hotel they might visit is top-rated.
Authors and hotels have been known to pay others or just invite employees or acquaintances to give them top ratings online, to encourage more purchases.
They've even done things the other way -- giving low marks to competitors.
This year, for instance, on a trip to Mexico, Scambuster Keith found among the reviews for his hotel one describing it as "paradise" and another claiming it was overrun with bugs, warning travelers never to stay there.
(He went anyway and, fortunately, found the first description nearer the truth!)
Some big online organizations like Amazon (for books) and Expedia (for travel) have introduced measures to try to halt this phony review process -- for example, making it clear whether a reviewer has genuinely purchased a product or stayed in the place they're writing about.
Five review tips
If you use other people's ratings to influence your buying decisions, here are five things to consider:
1. If a review is written anonymously or uses a nickname, don't count on it. If a name is given, check out the author's other reviews. With some travel sites, you can actually email the author to find out more.
2. If a product has only one or a handful of reviews unanimously claiming it's wonderful, be skeptical. Even Olympic judges rarely give top marks across the board.
3. The more reviews, stars or marks, the fairer the scoring is likely to be. If there are a lot of reviews, sample comments from appraisers right across the spectrum -- from ravers to rubbishers.
4. Longer reviews and those written by experts in the field are more likely to be honest appraisals. The writer has taken the time to think things through before delivering a judgment. Ignore the one-liners.
5. Remember the old saying "One man's meat is another man's poison." Just because someone else liked something doesn't mean you will. Purchasing decisions are down to you -- you can't blame others.
It's a well-known fact that you should never believe everything you read. Since humans first started committing their thoughts to writing, they've been using their skills not only to record thoughts and history but also to purposely mislead and dishonestly influence our opinions.
The only difference is that in the old days they used chisels and then quill pens. Today they use keyboards, manufactured opinions and fake news sites.
That's a wrap for this issue. Wishing you a great week!