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Extra! Extra! Fake News Sites Trick Consumers

The FTC is cracking down on online ads designed to look like objective news reports

posted by Caroline Mayer, July 31, 2012 More by this author

a hand coming out of a computer with cash

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


a hand coming out of a computer with cash
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
My husband — who works at home as a part-time technology writer — recently received an email from a friend, linking to a news story about a money-making, work-at-home venture in our town of Arlington, Va.
 
“Do these ‘make money at home in your spare time’ things ever work?” my husband asked, forwarding me the email.
 
I was ready to scream “NO!” but figured I should click on the link to check it out — if he got this email, chances are some Next Avenue readers have received one like it, too.
 
The Misleading Claim: Earn $7,500 a Month

The link sent me to News Daily 7 and what looked like a news story about someone named “Kelly Richards of Arlington” who earned nearly $7,500 a month working part-time from her home.
 
(MORE: Don’t Fall Victim to a Work-At-Home Scam)
 
It didn’t take long for the red flags in my skeptical consumer-minded brain to start waving.
 
For one thing, the story never identified which Arlington was home for Richards. Since there are at least 10 Arlingtons in the U.S., I was immediately dubious. What’s more, the “news site” had no street address or contact information. Even worse, the story was unclear about what Richards did to earn $7,500 a month, other than using the Internet. All told, the claim seemed too good to be true.
 
And it was.
 
The News Daily 7 report was an example of a disturbing trend: Internet scam artists who create fake news pages and blogs to make their ads look like objective journalism. Some appear to be online news stories; others are video reports creating the illusion that they’ve aired on TV.
 
More often than not, the ads are for anti-aging products, diet pills (like akai berry supplements), work-at-home schemes and debt-reduction plans — all available at a price. Frequently, the fake news stories are written as a reporter’s firsthand experience using a product and feature an eye-catching headline. The phony news pages typically appear to be from your hometown, as my husband’s email did. To enhance credibility, they prominently feature logos of legitimate organizations, such as CNN, Fox News and USA Today, with the implication that those outlets ran the story.
 
Coincidentally, this week my editor received an identical email from one of his sons. My editor lives in New Jersey, so his “news report” said Kelly Richards lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. (“Boy, this Kelly gets around,” my editor wrote me.)
 
It also turns out that his son never sent the email, at least not deliberately. Rather, a security breach compromised his computer and generated the email to his father — and probably to plenty of other contacts as well.
 
(MORE: How to Find a Legit Work-From-Home Job)
 
That’s exactly what happened to my husband’s friend, who seemed to have personally sent the email to my spouse, but actually didn't. “About 200 friends on my address book asked me if I sent it!” he told my husband.
 
What the Fine Print Hides

You have to read these “news” pages extremely closely in order to discover a hint of the truth. Scroll to the bottom and, in exceedingly fine print, you may find a note saying something like: “We are not affiliated in any way with CNN, WebTV, News Channel 1, ABC, NBC, CBS, U.S. News or Fox.”
 
That’s where you might also find — with the help of magnifying glasses — a disclaimer like this: “It is important to note that this site and the comments/answers depicted above are to be used as an illustrative example of what some individuals have achieved with this/these products. This website, and any page on the website, is based loosely off a true story, but has been modified in multiple ways including, but not limited to: the story, the photos, and the comments. Thus, this page, and any page on this website, are not to be taken literally or as a nonfiction story.” [Sic!]
 
Government Actions Against the Sites

The Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on the news ruse lately, trying to get money back from duped consumers. So far, the agency has shut down 10 fake news sites and collected more than $2 million in settlements; another proposed settlement could result in an additional $3 million.
 
These sites are “an attempt to play on people’s trust of legitimate news organizations,” says Steve Wernikoff, an attorney in the FTC’s Chicago office. “Legitimate news organizations don’t endorse products.”
 
Even the photos of the featured reporters are phony, or unauthorized, the FTC says. A photo of French TV personality Melissa Theuriau was used repeatedly without her permission.
 
New "News Sites" Keep Popping Up

But just as fast as one of these “news story” links disappears, another pops up.
 
When I recently tried clicking on the link my husband received, I got an error message saying the site “cannot be found.” But after typing “work at home” into my search engine, I found plenty of similar tales, including one from ConsumerFinanceReports.” Some of the stories featured Kelly Richards, although I see she now makes $89,844 a year.
 
Ever the curious reporter, I called the phone number on one of these “news” sites to find out more about its work-at-home opportunity.
 
First, I learned I’d need to pay $97 to get started. Details about the money-making business were sketchy, but apparently I’d get my own web page, and my “opportunity” would be to post links on the page to different companies and social networks. I’d get money every time someone clicked on a link — as much as $18, the operator told me. I’d also owe a $9 monthly fee to keep my account and web page active. I declined the opportunity.
 
Advice for Consumers

My bottom line: Be highly skeptical of any news reports that are trying to sell you something. More likely than not, the journalism outfit is bogus.
 
And if you do run across a suspicious site, report it to the FTC, either at the agency's website or by phone at 877-FTC-HELP.
 
And that’s the news — for real — from Next Avenue.
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