Learn Stuff About Hoaxes

Hoaxbusters: Resources on Internet and General Hoaxes
The advancement of internet technology has done a lot to help streamline communications, and has changed many facets of business and home life for the better. As with so many things however, the very things that make the internet beneficial can also be harmful if used the wrong way. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in internet hoaxes. Some, like viral stories of outlandish happenings or seemingly unbelievable feats of superhuman strength, are designed primarily to bring fame or notoriety to individual posters and are mainly created in jest. Seemingly real pleas for money or chain letters promising financial rewards in exchange for personal information can be fraudulent and are considered criminal in many jurisdictions.

Recognizing patterns in internet hoaxes and knowing where to look before trusting information gleaned online is a big part of staying protected. Even hoaxes that are not harmful can open people up to shame and ridicule when the truth comes out. It is usually best to treat breaking online news and too-good-to-be-true deals with a hint of skepticism. While the internet is a playground, it can also be a battlefield. Not everyone plays by the same rules, and the impetus is on the individual user to keep himself—and his computer—safe.

Social Networking Hoaxes
The rise of social networking services has made it easier than ever to quickly disseminate information to large readerships. News can “go viral” faster than ever, too. All it usually takes for a video or story to receive thousands of readers is to identify several popular users willing to share the link with all of their friends and followers.

Fake news that goes viral over social networks can be particularly difficult to reign in. A June 2012 Twitter hoax claiming that singer/actress Mariah Carey had died, for instance, spread to millions of readers and several news outlets before being debunked as untrue. Other improbable stories, like the YouTube user who posted a video purporting to show how an onion and a bottle of Gatorade could charge an iPod, or the Facebook user who posted photos of herself getting a tattoo of all 152 of her friends, can be harder to refute. The onion charger was not definitively disproved until the popular MythBusters television show took it on. The so-called “Facebook tattoo lady” was revealed as a fraud in an interview with a Dutch newspaper.

Most social networking hoaxes are started in order for individual users to gain fame or notoriety. An amateur video maker whose fake claims make the national news may garner quite a following. Even if his video is later disproved, he may have just made a name for himself. The same is usually true for Twitter users. The more retweets users inspire, the more popular their profile becomes. This sort of extreme narcissism is rarely dangerous, but it can be seen as weakening the integrity of social networks and online sharing.

E-Mail Scams and Chain Letters
Friends and social network notoriety are not required for lies to spread online. Email hoaxes have been some of the most devastating and long-lasting scams out there. Some of these are relatively harmless, like the frighteningly-worded “warning” emails about harmful chemicals lurking in shampoo, dangerous criminals stalking gas stations, or health concerns in common vegetables that urge readers to “send this to all your friends and family!” Most of these scams are designed to promote minority agendas, or spread the word about little-known causes.

Hoaxes may also be motivated by advertising. Sending emails or forwarding links that include embedded ads is a remarkably inexpensive means of promoting certain goods and services. This applies to email scams as well as social networking hoaxes.

Unfortunately, most email hoaxes are designed to do more than simply spread false information or ad links. Scams asking readers to send money, solicit help from friends, or forward phony cries for cash can be devastating to the gullible reader. Chain letters that promise readers a reward each time a message is forwarded are usually no more than blanket attempts to collect live email addresses and personal contact information.

A particular sort of email scam known as “phishing” can also carry serious consequences. Phishing happens when fraudsters and criminals send legitimate-looking email messages to unsuspecting users. The emails often contain legitimate graphics and icons from banks and social networking sites, and ask users to do things like respond back to confirm their account information. Phishers use this technique to collect account numbers, passwords, and personal information that can then be used to empty bank accounts and exploit social network contacts.

Prevention Techniques
A robust dose of skepticism is often the first step to avoid falling victim to online hoaxes. “Anything that looks too good to be true usually is,” the Australian Government’s Stay Smart Online campaign says. “Be very suspicious of emails from people or businesses you don’t know, particularly ones that promise you money, good health or a solution to all your problems,” the campaign adds.

It is also usually a good idea to double-check the accuracy of online claims before forwarding stories to friends or retweeting sensational tidbits. The validity of health-related hoaxes can usually be checked with quick searches on known websites. The American Cancer Society, for instance, maintains a database of truths and exaggerations regarding cancer risks, and regularly updates its list in response to viral internet threads. Cross-checking news sources about celebrity deaths, alien landings, and other fantastical claims can also be helpful.

Further Resources

  • The FBI’s E-Scams and Warnings page provides regularly updated information on e-scams, and also has a tool for filing complaints. Internet users who believe they have received an email or social networking scam message can forward it to the FBI through this page for investigation.
  • Internet security company Symantec’s Threat Explorer webpage offers details about known hoaxes, including how to identify, avoid, and securely report them.
  • The Internet Hoaxes site hosted by the United States Department of Homeland Security offers tips on identifying hoaxes and urban legends, and provides examples of common techniques to watch for.
  • Snopes.com maintains constantly updated databases of hoaxes, both dangerous and benign, that are searchable by date, type, and target.
  • The Internet Crime Complaint Center, sponsored by the National White Collar Crime Center, provides resources for detecting and preventing financial scams on social networks and e-mail. The site allows potential victims to file complaints and report possible internet fraud.
  • Sophos Hoax Center provides a list of the most recent hoaxes to cross Sophos e-mail servers, and are organized into categories including chain letter; scam; virus scare; and false alarm.
  • Scambusters.org maintains a live list of internet hoaxes and fake YouTube viral videos based on extensive web scanning and research.  Though the site provides contact information, it does not accept user-uploaded scams. This resource is a place to crosscheck questionable information, not to report potential scams.

Image Credit: Photo by o5com, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License (http://www.flickr.com/photos/o5com/4951598106/)