On Facebook, clicking 'like' can help scammers By Doug Gross, CNN

(CNN) -- It's an image that tugs at the heartstrings. A smiling 7-year-old girl poses in her cheerleading uniform, circled by a ring of pompons, her bald head a telltale sign of her chemotherapy treatments.

The photo hit Facebook last year and popped up all over with messages of support. "Like" to show this little girl you care. "Share" to tell her she's beautiful. Pray for her to beat cancer.

But here's the truth. The photo was nearly six years old. And neither the girl, nor her parents -- who never posted it to Facebook -- had any idea it was being used that way.

Welcome to the world of Facebook "like farming."

Those waves of saccharin-sweet posts that sometimes fill your news feed may seem harmless. But all too often, they're being used for nefarious purposes. At best, a complete stranger may be using the photos to stroke their own ego. At worst, experts say, scammers and spammers are using Facebook, often against the site's rules, to make some easy cash.

And they're wiling to play on the good intentions of Facebook users to do it.

"The average user doesn't know any better," said Tim Senft, founder of Facecrooks.com, a website that monitors scams and other illegal or unethical behavior on Facebook. "I think their common sense tells them it's not true, but in the back of their minds, they think 'What if it is true? What does it hurt if I press like?' or whatever."

What does it hurt?

"I was first shocked," said Amanda Rieth of Northampton, Pennsylvania, whose daughter was the subject of that photo. "And then infuriated."

After being notified by a friend who recognized the girl in a Facebook post, Rieth tracked the image back to a link she'd posted to her Photobucket account in a community forum in 2009, two years after it was taken.

Her daughter, who was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma in early 2007, has been featured in local news segments for her fundraising efforts to fight cancer through Alex's Lemonade Stand. But her mom said she was always part of the decision and was happy to help publicize the fight.

"This? This was entirely different and entirely out of our control," Rieth said. "That's the most gut-wrenching part: the total lack of control."

Hurting the people featured in the posts, and their families, isn't the only risk of sharing such content. Sometimes, a single click can help people who are up to no good.

Often, Senft said, Facebook pages are created with the sole purpose of spreading viral content that will get lots of likes and shares.

Once the page creators have piled up hundreds of thousands of likes and shares, they'll strip the page and promote something else, like products that they get a commission for selling. Or, they may turn around and sell the page through black-market websites to someone who does the same.

It's a way to trick Facebook's algorithm, which is designed to give more value to popular pages than the ones, like scams and spam, that pop up overnight.

"The more likes and shares and comments and that sort of thing you have, the more likely it is to be seen by other people," Senft said. "If they're looking to sell the page in a black-hat forum somewhere, that's what the value of the page is."

It gets worse

Sometimes, the threat is more direct.

The "new" page may be used to spread malware -- software that attacks the user's computer -- or for phishing, the act of trying to gather credit card numbers, passwords or other personal information through links to phony giveaways or contests.

Simply liking a post, or the page itself, can't spread a virus or phish a user. But malicious Facebook apps can, as can external links that page owners may choose to share to their followers.

If the page owner has access to Facebook's developer tools, they can collect data on the people who like the page. Personal information like gender, location and age can be used to target more personalized attacks.


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