Beware fake and dangerous WhatsApp messages

WhatsApp is far more than just a messaging app for South Africans – it is often a vehicle for breaking news and community gossip.

The app’s provision of fast and secure communication can be extremely useful when sharing important information, but it can also help to spread more nefarious messages.

Hoaxes, fake news, phishing messages, and scams are all rife on WhatsApp, and are spread – whether purposefully or unwittingly – by everyday users to their contacts and groups.

Combating these attacks and false reports is more difficult than it seems, as it is not easy to train all users to inspect everything from well-disguised competition scams to how their own biases are affecting their capacity to believe a shocking news story.

We have outlined a few basic steps you can take to protect yourself from attacks, scams, and fake news proliferated over WhatsApp.

Hoaxes and fake news

WhatsApp has a major misinformation problem.

“Don’t believe everything you read” is an aphorism most people are acquainted with, but for whatever reason, many of them forget to exercise the same cynicism with strangers in a group chat.

Whether it is false claims of blackouts and riots or hoaxes about HIV-infected chocolate, people have a habit of spreading shocking news without second-guessing the source of the information – especially if they have been forwarded it from somebody they know.

A number of these stories are harmless, while others might be crafted to incite violence against a certain racial or political group through the fabrication of anger-inducing headlines.

This anger can make it difficult to remain rational when reading stories sent via WhatsApp, but the rules of the Internet still apply – verify information using other trusted sources.

WhatsApp previously published a few steps that users can take to spot fake news, which we have summarised below:

  • Check if the message is forwarded
  • Check photos and media for editing and look for source images
  • Look out for messages that have spelling mistakes
  • Check your biases
  • Verify with other sources from trusted news sites
  • Just because it is popular, does not mean it is true
  • Tell the person who sent it that the information is fake

If you have found yourself forwarding messages blindly to your contacts without checking their veracity first, it is a good idea to practise the steps listed above.

A few of these (check if the message is forwarded, check for spelling mistakes, verify with other sources) are easy habits to cultivate, while others (check your biases, tell the person who sent it, check media for editing) can be much harder.

This is especially true for messages sent over WhatsApp, where people might be embarrassed to call out their friends for sharing information that is obviously false.

Phishing and scams

Fake news and hoaxes generally damage the discourse around important topics as well as incite fear or anger directed at specific groups.

Other types of messages target individuals, however, with the aim of stealing their online credentials and eventually gaining access to their accounts for nefarious purposes.

Phishing is a common practice across social media platforms, and WhatsApp is no exception. Many scams and malicious messages contain URLs which include links to phishing sites.

These websites are convincing copies of platforms like online banking portals, but instead of logging clients into their account, they are built to harvest the passwords of unsuspecting victims.

More traditional scams are popular on the messaging platform as well. A recent scam which circulated over WhatsApp in South Africa took the form of a stokvel club invitation.

The scam promised participants R1,000 in return for a R200 “investment”, instructing users to invite as many other people as possible.

This scam reportedly operated similarly to a typical pyramid scheme, taking advantage of the recipient’s need to sign up more victims to earn a larger amount.

Avoiding scams on WhatsApp is relatively simple, but requires constant vigilance. Do not sign up to any schemes or clubs with strangers, do not open links from untrusted sources, and beware of forwarded messages.

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Beware fake and dangerous WhatsApp messages