Tag Archives: Hoaxes

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism for 2019

2019 is going to be a lot like 2018, and a lot like every other year in recent memory: there will be a couple new ways to become a victim of some form of scam or fraud, there will be a boatload of old, tried-and-true scams still making the rounds (some with slight variations that make them seem new), a few “latest threats” frantically shared on social networks that turn out to be hoaxes, at least one or two major data breaches (and dozens of minor ones), and a whole lot of information, both accurate and inaccurate, about all of it.

And so, as we approach the new year, my advice is to stick to one basic principle, and to always ask yourself, “Is this the way the world really works?” That little bit of skepticism can be your best friend when it comes to avoiding scams and rip-offs, as well as not being the person who spreads false information and hoaxes online.

A lot of people make health-related resolutions this time of year. But before you spend money on a dietary supplement being hawked by some A-list celebrity, ask yourself how you think that A-lister got into the shape he or she is in. Does it seem more likely that they took a pill (that’s only been on the market for a few months, mind you), or could it be the full-time nutritionist on staff, the live-in chef, the million-dollar in-home suite of workout gear, the live-in personal trainer and the fact that their entire job description, when not actively working on a project, is to stay looking as perfect as possible?

When you read a story breathlessly shared on Facebook about robbers using fake perfume samples to subdue victims in parking lots (an urban legend that’s been repeated in various forms since around 1999), take a moment to notice how unlikely the whole scenario seems in light of how quickly most criminals prefer to operate (to say nothing of how ether and chloroform actually work). Notice how many of the “I narrowly escaped this!” stories boil down to, “I saw a man in a parking lot, and then nothing happened.”

When you get an email telling you that you’ve won the Powerball Lottery, remember how lotteries actually work in the real world. You buy a ticket and wait for some ping pong balls to pop out of a big tumbler. You don’t just “have an email address and wait until you win.”

When the phone rings and the caller claims that he’s from the IRS, you didn’t pay your taxes, and that you’re going to be arrested today unless you pay up immediately by purchasing some iTunes cards at the drugstore and calling back with the information, ask yourself if any one part of the situation squares with how the IRS actually functions. (Hint: none of it).

You don’t have to become a cynic, but just remembering to think about a new claim or information before you act on it can be a powerful ally. And remember this: if someone is trying to make you afraid of some immediate (or even abstract) threat, and they tell you the only way to make the fear go away is to give them something (money, personal information, etc.), they are probably not telling the truth.

Sick Child Facebook Hoaxes (OR: Don’t Like, Don’t Share, Don’t Type Amen)

You’ve almost definitely seen this if you use Facebook: a picture of a child or baby with some alarming medical condition appears in your newsfeed, along with instructions to type “Amen” in the comments, like and share the picture so Facebook will donate money to the child in the picture, let the child know you think they’re still beautiful, or share the post because “one share = one prayer,” and of course to keep scrolling if your [sic] heartless.

I’m here to tell you: be heartless. These posts are hoaxes. You’re definitely helping someone by liking, commenting and sharing, but it’s not the child in the photo.

First, those pictures are used without permission from the child or their parents. Sometimes the children in the pictures don’t have a medical issue, they’re just random photos somebody found on the Internet. This is pure exploitation.

Furthermore, Facebook does not donate money to individuals for medical treatments based on a photo being liked and shared. They’ve done it zero times in the past, and they’re going to do it zero times in the future, forever.

Here’s what you’re really doing when you comment, like, share or interact with one of these posts: you’re helping somebody who created a Facebook page, hijacked a photo of a child without permission, then created a post designed to generate thousands of likes and comments sell the page to someone else as a ready-made, plug-and-play, already-popular page.

It has to do with how Facebook prioritizes things in a news feed. Things don’t appear in unfiltered, chronological order. Posts which have already generated tons of activity (comments, likes, shares) get an additional boost from the Facebook algorithm. In other words, things that are already popular are boosted so they can become more popular, while things that are not popular get buried.

So a Facebook page (which is different from a personal profile) that generates super-popular posts with tons of interaction (i.e., thousands of people sharing and commenting “Amen”) will get a boost for future posts. It’s called like-farming. At that point, the person or company who created the page and post can sell it to anyone who will pay for it, the buyer changes the name of the page, and then runs whatever scam or ripoff they can come up with.

How should you respond to one of these posts?

First, don’t like, share, or type “amen.” But also don’t comment “this is a hoax,” because the algorithm only counts comments. It doesn’t care about their content. Besides, your comment will only be buried by a thousand “amens” within seconds anyway.

You can report the post or the page to Facebook, but there are so many of these hoaxes that it can be like playing whack-a-mole with a drinking straw (and forty thousand moles).

Definitely let your Facebook friend who shared it know that the post is a hoax and that they’re not helping a child at all. Let them know that the photo was used without permission, and that they’re only helping some con artist exploit children for personal gain.

If you need more evidence to convince your friend, here’s an article by the mother of a child whose photo has been repeatedly hijacked for this exact purpose: Why you SHOULDN’T “type Amen and share” posts of sick children.

Nobody is using keyrings with tracking devices to stake out burglary victims

You could also call this post, “Sometimes, even the authorities and the news media get roped in by a hoax.”

I’ve got some Google Alerts set up to help me find interesting topics for potential articles. While digging through the past week’s results, I ran across this item, from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: LPD warns locals of possible new scam.

If you don’t want to click the link, here’s the crux: “These criminals are handing out key rings that have tracking devices inside them. This way, the criminals are able to know where their targets are at all times if they are carrying the key ring.”

Well, I’ve heard of this one before. First in a forwarded email from my mom, then at Snopes: Key Crime.

Again, if you’re not interested in reading the whole thing, here’s the really basic jist:

snopes-false

Or, if you’d like a little more detail, this sums it up nicely (emphasis mine):

Aside from some technologically questionable aspects to these warnings, one prominent point of skepticism is the lack of obvious utility behind the scheme – that is, how would the ability to track unknown, randomly-selected motorists facilitate the commission of burglaries and carjackings? Especially since both of those crimes are overwhelmingly crimes of opportunity, engaged in as perpetrators spot or stumble across their chances, rather than crimes typically pursued through the elaborate staking out and tracking of targets.

So it’s a hoax. Please spread the word whenever you see this in an article, or when it shows up on Facebook, or when your mom forwards it to you.

The real issue, however, is the fact that, apparently,  nobody researches anything. In the article from Lubbock, it cites the Fort Worth PD as a source. So someone there got this forwarded email, passed it around, and then somebody told the newspaper. And nobody along that path checked it out, or even thought, “Man, this doesn’t sound at all like the way burglars and carjackers actually work.”

So you might say, “But isn’t it okay to just believe all the hoaxes, so then you’ll always be prepared for everything?”

I don’t agree. Mental energy is a finite resource, and if you waste all yours freaking out about your keychains, you’ll have less to spend on actually being vigilant in a useful, productive way. The point of fraud prevention is not to go through life in a state of sustained panic. It’s about being cautious, calm and skeptical of wild claims.

It’s also a bad habit to believe everything you see on the Internet, because that’s exactly what scammers want. Hey, if believing the keychain hoax is harmless, why not believe the email about investing in Iraqi Dinars, too? After all, the person who sent you the message SAID “this is not a scam,” right there in the message they typed, right?

Hoaxes are destructive. Don’t believe them, and please don’t spread them.