June 11, 2020

It seems that opportunistic scammers have moved from one tragic crisis to another. COVID-19 attracted hoaxes and exploited a confused public, and now the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests are doing the same, keeping fact-checkers busy.

On June 4, fact-checkers from the Associated Press published that it was not true that Starbucks was offering discounts to people who entered their stores saying “Black Lives Matter.”

The falsehood went viral on social media platforms, showing the image of two hands, one white and one black, holding glasses with the Starbucks logo. The caption suggested that the louder the person shouted “Black Lives Matter,” the larger the free drink. False. Starbucks confirmed to AP that the offer was not real.

Three days later, fact-checkers of Lead Stories realized that something similar was happening to KFC. A post with a red background and the fast-food network’s branding went viral on social media, offering a code and a false promise: a $20 discount on a meal when you bring the brochure to the restaurant.

In a statement to Lead Stories, KFC said the campaign was a scam.  “From time to time, survey scams circulate on social media using prominent brands as bait to capture personal information. While we attempt to locate the source of these scams, due to their viral nature that is often difficult. We encourage you to report these scams to the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org.”

None of this is new for fact-checkers or the Better Business Bureau, which has been trying to advise shoppers about the risks of online content.

On May 26, the BBB warned of  “unknown websites” that allegedly took advantage of the pandemic to sell products, but never actually delivered them during the lockdown. The list of complaints from dissatisfied customers was voluminous. The BBB decided to offer basic e-commerce tips.

Much of the BBB’s advice matches what fact-checkers share.

Here are the most crucial tips for online shopping:

  1. Know who you are dealing with. Check spelling and domain names. Google the website to see if other shoppers have complained. Look for poor grammar, a lack of information, and capital letters in the middle of sentences.
  2. Ensure the website address begins with https://.  The “s” stands for “secure.” A trustworthy online seller will have a secure domain, and that keeps your information safe from hackers. Check the address bar for a “not secure” message. Many websites will also have security certification logos visible on their homepage. Always click on them to verify they open to a security policy. Many scam sites will simply display these logos with no policy attached..
  3. Check the age of a website’s domain. Use a website like Whois to check whether a website was established recently.   Crises such as the coronavirus create new avenues for scammers to match current events with new websites that offer what the public is searching for.
  4. Check for an “about” page and a “contact us.” Scammers are creative, but they don’t often take the time to fabricate a full brand history like you would find on a legitimate company’s page.  The BBB recommends ensuring phone numbers and email addresses are both legitimate and responsive.
  5. Phishing emails often lack personalization. Legitimate companies communicate with customers using their names, but scammers don’t often know their victims. Many email scams will begin with a non-personalized salutation, like “Dear sir or madam.”

Read this article in Spanish at Univision.

*Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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Cristina Tardáguila is the International Fact-Checking Network’s Associate Director. She was born in May 1980, in Brazil, and has lived in Rio de Janeiro for…
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