Tell-tale Signs of a Fake Blog

How fake blog operators sell their “miracle” products and scareware: Internet Scambusters #441

Unscrupulous traders and scammers are using fake blog sites and misleading web pages to promote dubious health products, lure Internet surfers to advertisement-laden pages, and launch scareware — telling victims their PCs have been infected by a virus.

The tricksters also post ads and bogus comments on legitimate blog sites with the aim of drawing readers to their pages.

Although there’s no fool-proof way to spot a phony blog or comment, there are some fairly obvious clues, as we explain in this week’s report.

And now for the main feature…

Tell-tale Signs of a Fake Blog

It’s commonly known as a “flog” — a fake blog — and the con-artists who run them and bogus news sites are currently raking in an estimated $750 million a year selling products of questionable value, from supposed miracle cures to phony anti-virus software.

They’re easy to set up and, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently filed lawsuits to try to stop some of them, the tricksters often skirt their way around the law to stay in business.

What’s a fake blog? Well, first, let’s think about what a blog is: it’s usually a personal or company website that’s regularly updated with the latest news, views, and comments.

People use them to promote their products, air opinions and, sometimes, just to think out loud about the issues that interest or affect them.

But when a blog pretends to be something other than what it really is, that’s what we mean by a fake blog.

Sometimes they only have one article, often posing as an impartial news report commenting on some kind of “miracle” product.

We reported on this bogus “news” activity in one of our earlier issues, How Fake News Stories and Bogus News Websites Try to Deceive You.

One of the earliest and most notorious examples of a phony blog, a few years back, was a running account by an individual of his journey across the United States visiting stores owned by one of the nation’s biggest retailers.

It’s not that the reports were false. But red faces glowed all-round when the blog was exposed as a marketing trick, secretly paid for by the retailer (or at least its PR company) and written by a professional journalist.

Even though he really did make the trip, the blog itself was held to be deceptive because the true purpose and funding were not disclosed.

You might consider that harmless, but in recent years the fake blog has taken on a more sinister guise, frequently used by individuals to lure consumers into spending their money on “miracle” products.

Just to be clear, it’s not illegal to make claims about a product’s supposed wondrous properties — subject to following certain rules.

The trouble starts when bogus bloggers pass themselves off as interested but impartial reporters and consumers who just happen to have tried the product and supposedly found it worked… like a miracle.

And this doesn’t just happen with a fake blog. Sometimes, the sellers of these questionable products pop up as commenters on legitimate blogs, promoting their products or services.

In other cases, companies have been known to pay individuals to pretend to be satisfied customers, posting positive comments in blogs.

The FTC already has guidelines against this practice. Its Ad Practices director Mary Engle says: “An ad disguised as a blog or a blog where companies get people to pose as satisfied customers and write reviews, both are deceptive.”

Then in April 2011, the FTC filed its lawsuits to shut down fake news sites pretending to report independently on acai berry supplements, when, in fact, they were entirely fabricated.

Although all different, most of the sites carried the same report about the supposed effectiveness of the products, attributed to a journalist whose photo was used or with exactly the same comments from a purchaser using different names. The FTC alleged that none of these were genuine.

More Fake Blog Tricks

One particularly sneaky trick is for phony blogs to pose the question — either in the main text or in a comment — asking something like: “Is such-and-such a product a scam?”

Someone always answers to the effect that, of course it’s not a scam. They claim they tried it and it works. Oh really?

Then, whenever someone like you or us does a legitimate Internet search to check out the product by asking the same question, chances are they’ll be directed to the fake blog site, just because they used the same words.

In yet another variation, people set up scores of fake blog sites using mixtures of frequently searched-for phrases, strung together into paragraphs.

Sometimes the words make sense, sometimes they don’t. But they’ll probably have nothing to do with the subject you’re searching on and, if you land there, you’ll find a page plastered with advertisements.

Again, this is not illegal but, let’s face it, it’s highly misleading, and a dubious marketing practice.

One activity that has been outlawed by the FTC is when genuine bloggers accept a payment to promote a particular product without telling readers. They’re now obliged to disclose the payment, even if it’s payment-in-kind.

As if all that’s not bad enough, some varieties of fake blogs trick people into believing their PCs are infected with a virus.

Again, you might arrive there through a search engine, like Google or Yahoo, because they contain the words you’re looking for, but when you get there, a window pops up saying your PC is infected and offering to remove the virus — for a fee.

If anyone is naive enough to click on one of these pop-ups, the crooks will not only take their money but also upload malware to the PC to steal information.

Read more about this type of scareware in our earlier report, How to Spot and Avoid a Scareware or ID Theft Protection Scam.

Is it a Fake Blog Site?

So, how can you tell if you’re visiting a fake blog site or reading a phony comment?

Well, unfortunately there’s no foolproof way to detect them. But there are some telltale signs you can be on the look-out for:

  • Personalized ads that appear on legitimate websites, often suggesting someone in your area (which is easy for the scammers to identify) has discovered or tested a miracle product. The ads usually lead to a site promoting that product.When you get there, it may appear as an individual’s personal blog but the chances are it’s not.
  • The “blog” only has one story, with a recent date, discussing a particular product or service.
  • Many use one of the common blog programs — like WordPress, Blogger, and Typepad. Although pages are customizable, fake blog operators usually don’t bother, so they’re rather plain in appearance.
  • Someone (a commenter or the “blogger”) asks if the product is a scam and then the claim is rebutted.
  • The site has no contact information other than links or ads to the product it promotes. It usually had no ads for other products.
  • It contains jumbled text that doesn’t make sense.
  • The comments include sensational claims, such as “it changed my life.”
  • Phony comments, even on real sites, often give themselves away by including links to other websites or having a poster’s name (which may be clickable) that’s either a blatant promo — like “miracle_weight_loss” or a single first name followed by a number, like “Jon123.”

Of course, you should never click on a pop-up that claims your PC is infected with a virus. If this happens, exit your browser and run a scan using your own security software. You do have it installed and updated don’t you?

We always encourage our readers to be skeptical and cautious about anything they read on the Internet. When it comes to the risk of encountering a fake blog, you should double your guard!

That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next week with another issue. See you then!