The Anatomy of a Hoax Website

One of the skills that today’s students need to learn–and that many schools fail to systematically teach–is how to identify hoax websites.  In a world where content can be created by anyone, being a critical consumer of online content is not an optional skill. 

So I figured I’d introduce y’all to the anatomy of a hoax website—and finding one wasn’t too difficult at all!  Early in the week, a spammer in Twitter—who has since disabled his own account—sent me a message suggesting that I look into a new opportunity to work for Google from home!

Interested in any opportunity to make a bit of extra cash, I checked out the website that he’d sent along in his Tweet.  You should too because it is a perfect example of digital chicanery at its best!

Here’s the link

A quick glance at the site left me pretty impressed. 

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The layout clearly looked professional, and the “As Seen on CNN” bar at the top of the page lent an air of credibility to the claim that regular folk like you and I could make thousands of dollars by spotting new sites and sharing interesting links with the the world’s largest search engine.

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Being a guy who is constantly bookmarking websites and sharing them through my Twitter feed with friends, the site had my attention.  As I kept reading, though, my hoax radar started to zoom in on subtle hints that just didn’t seem to sit right with me. 

I’ve turned each of those hints into a series of lessons for my students.  They start with this quote:

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Lesson 1:  Common Sense Matters

Now, if there’s anything that I know—and that students need to learn—about spotting a hoax, it’s that common sense is your best defense against getting suckered by a scam!  And this particular quote just doesn’t make sense, does it?

Even Google—an economic powerhouse—couldn’t afford to pay $25 per link, could it?  Imagine the costs that would go in to a search engine that can churn out MILLIONS of links for any term imaginable if they were giving “site spotters” 25 bucks a crack. 

And I’ve never seen a legitimate opportunity to make $5,500 from home as easily as ol’ Mary makes things out to be.

Lesson 2:  Look for Links 

But the biggest giveaway in this quote is something that you may have missed at first glance.  The beginning of the second paragraph starts with “From her website,” right? 

If this quote is really from Mary’s website, WHERE’S THE LINK?

The sad fact of the digital age is that anyone can write anything at anytime.  Want to argue that the center of the earth is really made of pudding?  Go for it.  Believe that fractions are really a fraud started by an evil Roman emperor?  Invest a bit of time into a blog or a wiki and you can push your lunacy on anyone online.

Which means that legitimate writers link to any source that they reference in their work.  Knowing that they’ve got to build the confidence of readers, online content creators will always supply you with the sources for information—and online readers always need to explore sources before deciding what is worth believing. 

If a writer doesn’t include links, be suspicious.  Be very suspicious!

Practice Activity:

So we’ve reviewed two hoax spotting lessons, right?  Let’s practice what you’ve learned.  Can you find the hoax evidence in the following quote:

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So what didn’t sit right with you?

For me, there were two hints:  First of all, using my common sense, I figured it would be nearly impossible to make thousands of dollars a month working just 1 or 2 hours a day.  Also, shouldn’t there be a link inserted over the words “Google reports”?

I mean, if Google really said these things, shouldn’t we be able to find the original source online?  We are talking about GOOGLE after all.  Think they've got a website or two to post information on?

Lesson 3:  Links don’t automatically equal credibility

After I teach my students to be on the lookout for links in their web browsing, inevitably they believe that the mere presence of links means that they can trust a site.  They forget that—just like any content online—links can be faked, too. 

Take this link for example:

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Supposedly, selecting this link will take readers to a website to create a Google account, right? 

But if you hover over the link and look in the gray navigation bar at the bottom of your web browser—a quick trick that I like to teach students to make spotting suspicious links easier—you’ll notice that it takes viewers to http://www.cpaclicks.com.

Now let me ask you a question:  Why would you go anywhere BUT a Google site to create a Google account? 

Seems fishy, doesn’t it? 

Especially when you find out that hovering over ANY link in the entire online article takes you to the same web domain!  Want to go to the “official Google site?”  You’re going to head to CPA Clicks. 

Good website authors will always include links to a diverse range of websites.  Anytime that EVERY link in an online article takes you to the same site, the chances are good that you’re being scammed.

Lesson 4:  Always look at the feedback 

One of the most significant changes in the digital world in the past five years is that users want to participate.  We leave our thoughts, share our opinions, and lend advice in almost every situation. 

In fact, that’s where the term Web 2.0 comes from:  We don’t want one-way broadcasts of ideas.  We want a give-and take between content creators and consumers. 

Web content creators have adapted to this desire for two-way communication by providing opportunities for readers or viewers to leave comments on the content that they produce.  Heck, even news websites are allowing readers to leave comments on the events that they are covering. 

And comment sections are a perfect place to spot hoaxes.  Take this strand of conversation from the Job with Google scam that we’re studying:

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Do you notice anything suspicious?

For me, a few things stand out:  First of all, not a single reader—in the three comments shared or the other 8 comments on the site—uses their last name.  Now, I don’t always use my last name when working online either, but it is really unusual for NO ONE to use their last name. 

Also, it is always surprising to me when EVERY commenter shares the same kind of comments.  Did you notice how successful and happy all of these readers are with the potential for working with Google?  When was the last time that you had a group of 8 adults who were ALL happy with anything?

Right.  It doesn’t happen.

Finally, when was the last time you knew a grown man to continue to go by “Mikey.”

That doesn’t happen either. 

It’s also fun to note that the comment section on this site was closed due to spam after 10 positive comments and no negative comments.  Coincidence? 

Probably not.

Lesson 5:  Look at the fine print

Let’s face it:  Few of us ever really read the fine print on any website.  In fact, we rarely even notice the small links to “disclaimers,” “terms of service” or “contact us” that are buried in the header or the footer of most sites.

And that’s a recipe for disaster considering that this often-hidden content is usually the only place where h
oaxsters bother to tell the truth.  Anyone looking to protect themselves from a scam just HAS to take the time to poke through the fine print.

When I poked through the disclaimer at the bottom of the Job with Google website, look what I found: 

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Awesome, huh?!

In the first highlighted line, the authors of the website recommend that anyone interested in this program consult with legal and financial professionals before moving forward!

I don’t know about you, I shouldn’t have to consult with legal and financial professionals before taking a great job opportunity with a reputable company like Google.

Oh yeah—but the second highlighted line lets the real cat out of the bag:  This job opportunity ISN’T with Google at all!

Kind of funny considering the “Google Hiring Americans and Canadians” headline, huh?  What about the “official Google profit” site and the handful of quotes from Google spokespeople? 

All a hoax. 

The long story shortened is this: 

Careful readers of websites can spot hoaxes if they’re diligent.  Using common sense, looking for links, checking feedback and reading the fine print isn’t always easy—and it runs against the traditional “infosnacking” that we do while online—but it is essential for being a responsible consumer of online content.

How many of you are teaching students the tricks to spotting hoax websites?  Do you have any other tips to share with readers? 

Let’s assemble a collection of strategies that we can use to help our students tackle this long-overlooked information literacy challenge.  

(Author's Note:  In the two days since this Job with Google site ended up in my inbox, it looks like it has been taken down by the creator!  Still another sign of a hoax.  Responsible sites don't disappear that quickly.)

7 comments

  1. Rhonda Russell

    I noticed that when I clicked on the refund link, I was returned to the original article. Another sign of a hoax.

  2. ginnyp

    I used to read urban myths with my students to teach about credibility of sources. Guess this is the 2.0 version.

  3. Clix

    Oooo, I like this! I’ve had my students look for information on DHMO before, but I haven’t thought about using one of the popunders. There’s another I’ve seen about Losing Weight Fast! by drinking blueberry juice … or something.
    Would you consider submitting this for the upcoming EduCarnival?

  4. Michael Kaechele

    Great lesson for students. I started off school this year by having them research a fake site on human cloning. Only a few figured out it was fake. It was a good experience in the need for critical thinking for them. Here is my post about it.