The Real Fallout From Fake News

Fake news-related word cloud on tabletEn español |  When fake news isn’t fueling what some considered tip-the-scales influence on a presidential choice, the primary purpose of shocking headlines and bogus reports is to make money for some while scamming others.

Politics aside, most fake news and fake news websites exist to make money from advertising: The more clicks of that page, the higher commission received from views of surrounding display ads. Outrageous claims attract eyeballs, helping to pad pockets.

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But some fake news campaigns — spread via email spam, in pop-up ads, through keyword searches and, especially, on Facebook — are more about cons than capitalism.

Consider malware, like the kind that started infecting computers within hours of the Osama bin Laden raid. It was spread via clicked links that promised “shocking” photos of the shooting, but its purpose was to monitor and siphon funds from users’ online banking accounts to those controlled by fraudsters. Other malware is harbored in attention-grabbing clickbait about current events, celebrity gossip, miracle cures, bargain buys, you name it. Some malware is designed to enlist computers as spam-spreading botnets to distribute more fake news to friends and strangers.

Other fake news is aimed to sell products such as wrinkle creams, dietary supplements or work-at-home job kits. These campaigns usually consist of exaggerated, if not fictionalized, studies and phony testimonials from celebrities or other consumers. To look and sound authentic, some feign to be a legitimate news organization or another independent party. Their useless, if not dangerous, products often are offered as free trial samples. After providing credit card details for supposedly small shipping and handling charges, customers get bombarded with recurring charges (often, for multiple “monthly” orders shipped within days of each other). There might also be unwanted additional merchandise and charges, and hard-to-cancel “memberships.”

Bottom line: Fake news can have a very real fallout. What to know (in addition to not believing everything you read):

Be leery of links. Are details promised in an embedded link, rather than provided in body text? That’s the fastest way to infect computers with malware. Another link-clicking result: being directed to a survey that must be completed before “shocking” stories and photos are revealed. This gathers personal information on behalf of marketers or scammers, another way that purveyors of fake news make money.

Pass on “required” software. Scam sites may claim you must install a certain plug-in to view videos or photos. It’s another trick to install malware.

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Notice local lures. Notice how fake news is often local — supposedly reported by local media or consisting of made-up testimonials by neighborhood customers. That’s because fake news websites use an IP tracking tool to ensure the same message is customized locally for greatest impact. So fake news reaching Floridians appears to be from the bogus Miami Chronicle, while the same pages reach folks in the Northwest from the Seattle Chronicle.

Know what’s in the fine print (or not). With most free trials, the cancellation window starts the moment you place your order, not when you receive the product. And in many cases, fake news vendors purposely don’t ship initial “free trial” orders until after the period has ended, hoping you won’t cancel in the meantime. Also watch for pre-checked boxes, which may give companies a green light to continue the offer past the trial period or sign you up for more products.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. And you’ll gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.

Photo: marekuliasz/iStock

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