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Deception online is trivially easy with today's technologies. There's more snake-oil on the internet than ever before - how do you know what's legit?
A very good friend - a mentor and inspiration for Ask Leo!, in fact - has fallen victim to a particularly nasty form of fraud. It turns into an important lesson for all of us in understanding what we can, and cannot believe on the internet.
Here's the scenario...
There's a web site that, for lack of a better term, promotes a "get rich quick" scheme. I'm not going to name names, because I don't want to give them any press or links or page views. In fact, the specifics aren't important here - the situation, however, is.
On this web site, near the bottom is a glowing testimonial. From my friend.
A testimonial that he never provided.
The testimonial is much like you'd see on any web site trying to sell you something. It shows his smiling picture, a photograph of a check made out to him in some large amount, and includes a description of his story, and glowing words about what this particular product did for him.
The problem is that it's all fake.
He never used the product. He never gave an endorsement.
The photo of my friend was stolen from his web site, and the photo of the check is a photoshopped fake.
The pretty words that are his "endorsement"? Total fabrication. Lies.
The entire scenario is fraud, at its most blatant.
And aside from reporting it to the appropriate authorities (which he has done), and getting angry about it (definitely), or perhaps engaging an attorney (I'm sure he's considering it), there's actually little to be done that will force any immediate reaction or retraction.
What does this all mean to you?
A mutual friend, Paul Myers, wrote in his newsletter about this very same scenario:
Here's something you won't hear a lot of copywriters say:
Do not believe anything you read in a testimonial unless you know the person giving it, or the person selling the product, well enough that the testimonial doesn't matter anyway.
If you only know the person giving the testimonial, you may want to ask if they really did say what the sales page claims they said.
In short: don't believe everything you read on the internet.
People often joke about that statement, and I'll admit it's kind of odd for me to remind you of it given that I make my living these days by publishing on the internet. But really, how often do you blindly assume that what you find after a Google search is in fact legitimate? Or that a web site you stumble upon happens to be on the up-and-up?
Or that the testimonial or customer feedback you find is actually legitimate?
How often do you take the time to research - really research - a business or a business opportunity that you find on the internet?
That's the key: don't assume. Double check.
As Paul points out above, you can't just assume testimonials on websites are valid - they could be completely made up, and sadly they often are. And even if not that blatantly fabricated, to once again quote Paul:
You might also be surprised to know how many of the testimonials you see aren't from paying customers at all. A lot of them are nice things people say about the product in return for getting a free copy.
That's even something I have to be careful of here on Ask Leo!. I do get offered free copies of things (which I generally, politely, decline) in exchange for a positive review. That's not how I operate.
But it's not uncommon.
Be cautious. Take recommendations only from places (or people) you already trust, and even then with a grain of salt. If you're about to purchase something based on testimonials (or customer reviews, or blog comments or other similar content) consider the source, and in particular, consider how trivial it would be for that to be totally bogus. Talk to people - real people - who you know and trust who've used whatever it is you're considering.
I'm not saying that all reviews or testimonials are bogus - I'm just saying that when it comes to parting with your money, there are many people who will go through great lengths to convince you of just about anything. Making stuff up is just one approach that they're not above using.
Stealing the image of, and attributing fake praise to an otherwise trusted, legitimate resource is just one example. Making stuff up.
To be clear - I'm not saying "don't shop on line", or "don't respond to offers on the internet". There's a ton of really good stuff out there, from legitimate businesses and individuals. To pass it all up due to fear would be just as foolish as believing everything you read.
You do simply need to take a little responsibility for taking an extra step or two to verify that you're doing business with a legitimate entity.
And you need to know what you can - and cannot - trust.
The internet no different than life in general that way.
(As an aside, if you're a writer, a copy-writer, a budding internet marketer or entrepreneur - I do recommend Paul Myer's TalkBiz News newsletter. Paul's an effective and highly entertaining writer himself and he shares many of his tips, advice - and occasional rants - that are all incredibly educational. And yes, this is a testimonial, no he didn't ask for it, and yes if you were to verify it with me some other way you'd get the same message. He's legit. )