Lately it seems like half the news is about “fake news”. Whether you’re outraged or amused by the flood of misinformation, it’s important to be able to sort fact from fiction because some of the “alternative facts” out there are intended to help scammers take advantage of you.
Online criminals are constantly generating fake information for fun and profit. For example, a recent ESPN story covered the announcement that a top-ranked German soccer player had been recruited by the national soccer team of the tiny Indonesian nation of East Timor. Huge news, but as ESPN noted, the story was fake: the Timorese soccer team was using falsified birth certificates to assemble a fake team, and law enforcement authorities are investigating whether the goal was simply mischief or to perpetrate betting fraud. Scammers will use charity crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe to raise money for fake but worthy-sounding causes like reuniting a retired police officer and his dog. And Forbes magazine reports that even legitimate websites, including its own, host paid advertising with headlines that look like news stories, “most of them [pointing] to fake news sites that try to sell you on some shady, questionably legal product or service.”
Fake news is a powerful tool for scammers because it’s so easy to share online, and when we hear something exciting or interesting from a friend or family member, we tend to believe it. The first way to protect yourself from fake news scams is to stop and think before you act on a news item. Ask yourself if it’s too good to be true, if you can trust or even identify the original source, or if it even makes sense. For example, a recent scam promised two free Southwest Airlines tickets to survey respondents in celebration of the airline’s 88th birthday. Two obvious problems here: airlines don’t give away tickets for filling out a survey, and Southwest Airlines was founded in 1969, not the 1930’s.
There are also a number of websites that can help you spot fake news:
- If you suspect a news story making the rounds online, see if it’s been debunked on Snopes.com, the largest fact-checking site on the Internet. (You can also submit suspected rumors on the site.)
- Visit onlinethreatalerts.com for news about cyber crime, scams, fraud, internet or online threats.
- You can check if a charity is legitimate by contacting the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance or GuideStar.
- Search with the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker tool to find out if an online business is a scam.
Finally, be careful what you share. It’s fun to have the inside track and amaze your friends. But passing on fake news can make you an unwitting accessory to cyber crime.