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Online fraud: how to spot a fake

We live in a world full of fakes and swindlers. From email and social media to online auctions and dating sites, frauds of all sorts are waiting to relieve us of our money and personal information.

But how can you tell the false from the true? Here are my tips on spotting a fake from the real deal.

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Fake email

The most common forgery is the fake email. Usually these are phishing scams that are trying to steal your account details; sometimes they’re attempts at blackmail or cons; in other cases, they’ll direct you to open malicious files (viruses or ransomware).

Poor spelling and incorrect graphics used to make these types of emails easier to spot. However, the scammers are getting sneakier. Many have cleaned up the tell-tale grammatical errors and use official logos. The only way to tell is by checking where the links take you.

Hovering your mouse over a link shows you where it goes (on a tablet or phone long-pressing the link does the same thing). If the link looks dodgy, don’t click it. For example, BNZ’s website is BNZ.co.nz, not BNZ.com, BNZ-mail.co.nz, BNZ.mail.com or any other combination.

Annoyingly, sometimes what looks like a fake email can actually be real. My bank has sent me numerous emails that looked like terrible phishing attempts. In general, you’re always better off circumventing the email entirely and instead using a browser to log in to the website directly.

Fake reviews

Crafting fake reviews, on sites ranging from dodgy parallel importers to Amazon, can be a profitable business. Some “reviewers” are paid to write five-star reviews for a product or service. It’s not just reviews that fraudulently over-sell products and services; some also submit one-star reviews trashing a rival business.

The language used in these reviews makes it difficult to pick the real from the fake. I recommend ignoring five- and one-star reviews altogether. Instead, pay attention to the two-, three- and four-star ones.

Fake news

“Fake news” is the favourite phrase of some politicians to describe anything unfavourable to their own views. Of course inaccurate or outright fabricated news stories abound on social media – and while this may seem like an American problem, it’s become a global issue.

The internet is full of websites publishing over-the-top articles, sometimes claimed as satire. These articles can easily, and embarrassingly, fool people. For example, in August, National MP Judith Collins tweeted a fake article and called on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to denounce it. It turned out the article was fake.

Collins is a good example of what not to do, because after she was told the article was fake, she doubled down on it and defended her use of it. If you make an online faux pas and share a fake story, act quickly. You may be embarrassed, but admit it to everyone on your online networks and delete as much as you can so the story doesn’t spread.

If you’re unsure, check out Snopes.com. It has a group of dedicated researchers and a long track record of debunking internet myths and false articles. Snopes should be your first port of call when you come across any story that doesn’t seem right.

Fake profiles

Because making accounts online is so easy, beware of fake profiles. Not only is this where many misleading reviews come from, they’re also a common way scammers try to bilk you or steal personal information from the unsuspecting.

In the world of online dating profiles, there’s a term called catfishing. These are fake accounts, set up by scammers, filled with stolen photos of good-looking people from the internet. Duped suitors are then conned into handing over money or gifts to their “dream” partner.

Netsafe reports New Zealanders lost $7.9 million to romance scams in the first three months of 2018 alone. This number is likely much higher, because victims often feel ashamed of having been duped, and don’t tell friends or family about what happened.

If you’re suspicious, there’s a lot you can do. Look at how long they’ve been signed up to the site. If it’s social media, do you know anyone who follows them? Are they sending the same messages to many different people?

You can also do a reverse image search of their profile photos. Simply take the image and put it through a search engine such as Google Image Search or TinEye. This will show you the likely origin of the photos.

If you think you may be the victim of a romance scam or know someone who was scammed, then put the embarrassment aside and contact Netsafe and the police.

Fake images

A lot of dodgy stories are based on fake images. After any major natural disaster, social media is flooded with false pictures. They’re often faked, mis-captioned, or taken out of context.

Even officials can be fooled, as the Palmerston North City Council were when they shared a misappropriated photo on their Facebook page. Fast-spreading misinformation can lead to public endangerment, especially during an emergency.

Again, Snopes and reverse image searching quickly lets you discover what is real and what isn’t. They are excellent resources for all those outlandish pictures your click-happy relatives share on Facebook.


By Hadyn Green
Technology Writer