We've all seen those posts on Facebook. Often a picture of a sick child requesting you share the post because if you do, a corporation, or Facebook themselves, will donate some money to help the person in the picture. What do you you do? Share the image with your friends? Or ignore it and feel heartless?
Unfortunately many of these posts are exploitative hoaxes. The picture of the child is stolen and used without permisson, often causing great distress to the family.
In the interest of helping you stamp out these scams, I've written this blog which will help you recognise a hoax and offer advice on what to do if you see one.
Why would someone do this?
The people circulating these images have one aim: to make money. They do this by generating Likes and activity on their own Facebook page. Likes and comments are like currency on Facebook, the more activity and interaction a page has, the more likely their posts are to appear in your feed. This is because Facebook gives each post something called Edgerank which assumes that if that brand or company is posting content that people want to like and share then those posts should be given more weight and appear at the top of your news feed.
So the scammers create a Facebook page entitled something everyone will agree with and start posting content that plays on your good nature and manipulates you into liking and sharing. They might create a page called "Like this page if you hate cancer" and post all sorts of images saying "Share this image to donate £1 to help pay for this boy's medical bill."
Once they have a page with thousands of Likes, comments and interactions, the scammers have a page that is going to be worth something to a business. A business that wants their social media account to get a head start in terms of Edgerank, without putting in any of the work involved to build up engagement themselves. The scammers sell the page, the business change the page details and bingo, an instant social media audience.
Other pages are even more direct, asking Facebook users to make online donations to their bogus cause, donations which are in fact pocketed by the unscrupulous scammer.
What's the harm?
This manipulative scam causes more harm than just making generous Facebook users feel a bit naive. Actvity like this is very hurtful for the families involved.
For example, one such image was a picture of two year old Zoe Chambers, who was born with narrow heart valves. Zoe underwent a heart transplant but tragically did not make a full recovery and died the following year. Unknown to Zoe's family, an image of her in hospital was widely shared on Facebook with a caption claiming that the baby would receive a heart transplant if the photo received 1000 shares. The Facebook page also requested donations to 'help' the baby, which in reality went into the personal PayPal account of a conman based in Jamaica. Thousands of people shared the photo, boosting the page's visibility to other Facebook users, helping them attract more 'donations'. The fraudulent photo reached 170,000 people, leaving Zoe's grieving family distraught at the idea that ther daughter's image was being used to con people, and even worried that people might assume they were themselves behind the scam.
Scam pages are also damaging to charities, because they divert attention and engagement from our authentic Facebook content which aims to raise awareness and often features real stories, which are shared with full permission from the people involved. They also make people mistrust fundraising attempts on Facebook, which is bad news for us and any other great charity trying to encourage our audiences to donate safely and securely online.
Spotting a hoax
So how do you tell if an image is a hoax? Here are some questions to ask yourself before you click Share...
Who originally posted this? Take a look at the page which posted the image, is it a charity you recognise? Take a look at comments people have left on the page, other users may have commented to alert people to the fact that this is a scam.
Do they ask for donations? If the page is asking for donations, does the link go through to a charity website (with a registered charity number) or a reputable fundraising site like JustGiving? If it's simply the Paypal account of someone you don't know you should be wary of donating and of helping the page by sharing their content. (Bear in mind that not all scam pages will ask for donations, many simply seek to build up Edgerank for the page and then sell it on, see the 'Why would someone do this?' section above.)
Google it. Many hoaxes on Facebook are flagged up by websites designed to expose them, like snopes.com or hoax-slayer.com. If the post you're thinking of sharing has anything specific like a name or detailed story, copy and paste a bit of the text into Google, and check the results for any webpages exposing this particular post as a hoax.
Impossible claims. Any photo claiming that Facebook or anyone else will donate a certain amount every time a photo is shared is a scam. The amount of shares are impossible to accurately track and this is not something any company would sign up to.
1 like = 1 prayer? This sort of transparently manipulative claim has the same effect. A real charity or campaign would create proper content you would want to share for its own merit. Think before you click: does clicking 'Like' really mean the same as saying a prayer for a sick child? Or is more likely a con artist playing on your heartstrings?
Know an authentic charity post when you see one. Take a look at the post on the right, a story we recently posted on our Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research Facebook page. As Charlotte and her family have volunteered to share their story with us, we have all the background information to share with you and the link takes you back to our official website where you can read more about Charlotte. Ask yourself if the post looks like the person who wrote it really knows the person featured. Does it link to an authentic charity website?
What should I do if my friend shares a hoax image?
If a hoax image pops up in your feed, shared by a well-meaning friend, don't comment on it. Commenting attracts more attention to the post and boosts the scam page's reach. Instead follow these three steps:
1. Report the page.
Go to the page which originally posted the image, click on the cog in the top right and report the page for spam.
2. Report the post.
On the specific post in your news feed, click on the little arrow in the top right and report the post as spam.
3. Alert your friend.
Post seperately on your friend's wall letting them know that you think what they shared is a scam. You could include a link to this page too, so they can read it and be on the look-out for hoax posts.
Do a little good on Facebook
Scammers target you on Facebook because your Likes and shares are valuable to them. The good news is that now you can spot the hoaxes, you can use your power on Facebook to do something good.
Find your favourite charity on Facebook and Like their page. (Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research is here and we also have a page for Pledgeit.) You can usually tell a real charity Facebook page, but a surefire way is to head to their website first and follow a link to their official Facebook.
Next, look out for the page's posts and Like, comment on and share them as much as you can. This helps the charity reach more people and get their message out there raising more money and awareness. Instead of helping scammers, you'll be helping us do amazing things like develop new treatments that will save and improve the lives of thousands of blood cancer patients. Now that sounds like a good use of your time.