Buyer Beware: Influx of Suspicious Websites Using Stolen or Scraped Material

Health websites have become “a dime a dozen” on the internet. And, many of these websites are seen plastered all over Facebook as well. If you are a member of any health-related group on Facebook, you can’t scroll down your own newsfeed without being presented with an endless barrage of links to articles which may or may not be of interest to you.

Can you tell that I’m currently feeling saturated with “health news” on the web?

However, it is great when people you know share links to articles you might appreciate reading, especially ones which focus on multiple sclerosis. As a moderator of MultipleSclerosis.net Facebook (FB) page, I love seeing articles and stories from our writers and community members featured each day on our page.

But while I enjoy the ease and simplicity of having stories delivered to my figurative FB doorstep, I have become increasingly irate regarding the rising number of “health” websites which seem to be thrown together simply to republish, repurpose, steal, plagiarize, or “scrape” material from reputable websites; a practice that goes against Google’s quality content guidelines.

It is my opinion that if, for example, Julie Stachowiak, a well-respected writer living with MS, publishes an article on About.com or the National MS Society’s blog, then people should be directed to read her article on the established website whose sponsoring company/organization has hired her services.

In the MS community, there has been an increasing number of low-quality websites that are scraping reputable material, such as that provided by MultipleSclerosis.net. The owners of these low-quality websites often create “fake” FB profiles which are used to join MS groups with the singular purpose of posting links to the scraped content.


How does this hurt the MS community?

This practice is bad for the MS community because these low-quality websites may contain ads for questionable products, have malware or viruses, and keep you from discovering relevant high-quality material on reputable websites. These spammy websites seem to exist primarily to get clicks and earn advertising fees.

I began researching several of these websites after noticing that they were being heavily promoted in certain MS-related FB groups. I have identified 46 suspicious websites whose URLs were registered, primarily in Pakistan and Panama, by fewer than 7 individuals. Some registrants have used more than one country in which to register their collection of domains. One domain owner is independently connected to 18 sites (with 9 additional sites suspected) while a group of 5 individuals seem to be connected to 13 sites between them.

The invasion is ongoing.

I have discovered that 36 of these 46 websites were created within the past three months; 18 in August and 6 in September alone. That’s a huge influx of suspicious websites trying to distract the online MS community with stolen or scraped material. In the short time since I began writing this article, 8 additional websites went up accompanied by 30 new fake FB profiles to promote them. Unfortunately, I believe that the admin(s) for a few newer MS groups that aggressively added members this summer are actually connected to this entire scam.

How can you find out who registered a website, when and where?

Every time a domain is registered, the details of that registration must be published in a publicly accessible database called WHOIS. You can go directly to a WHOIS listing by typing www.whois.com/whois/[insertyoururl.com] into a browser. However, there are ways to hide registrant information, so you may only see that the name is protected or private.

Can you spot a fake Facebook profile?

These same handful of domain owners have created at least 80 fake Facebook profiles used to promote the scraped articles published on their low-quality websites. One domain registrant has created at least 32 fake FB profiles, while another team has created 30, that are used to spam MS groups. Here’s an article on ITWorld that explains ways to spot a fake FB profile.

And, a Wordle created from information – website urls, domain registrants, their locations, and fake FB profiles – gleaned through personal research and observation regarding the WORST OFFENDERS in the MS groups:
Wordle Websites.004How can you easily find out if an article was scraped?

The easiest way to find the original article is to use Google to search for a significant portion of the text. This will often bring you directly to the original, reputable website where you may find more high-quality MS-related information.

How can you determine if a website has trustworthy health information?

The Health On the Net (HON) Foundation is a non-profit, non-governmental organization created in 1995 that “promotes and guides the deployment of useful and reliable online health information, and its appropriate and efficient use.” To receive HONcode certification, websites must go through a thorough review and approval process. Having gone through this process for my own blog that has HONcode certification, I can attest that the process is quite rigorous and detailed. Look for an active HONcode on a website.

What SHOULD you do if you notice questionable posts in your favorite group on Facebook?

You should report the post and/or fake FB profiles to the group’s administrator. You may be asked why you reported the particular post or person in question, in which case you can explain your concern; then provide a link to this article to support why you believe it’s important to keep our groups free from predators.

Pause a moment next time before you click “like” or decide to “share” something on Facebook, even if the post is very tempting with a great headline or pretty image. Please freely share links you find from your favorite, trustworthy websites such as MultipleSclerosis.net to help distribute quality information.

Please be aware that all of the information presented above focuses on what I’ve witnessed within the MS community on Facebook. Low-quality websites are being widely promoted through fake FB profiles in many other disease communities of epidemic proportions that exceed my ability to analyze by hand.

As a community of people who deal with chronic illness, we need to stick up for ourselves and help each other to think critically and push back when possible. If you see this going on in your group, please, report it and do not be prey.

Lisa Emrich | Follow me on Facebook | Follow me on Twitter | Follow me on Pinterest

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The MultipleSclerosis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (5)
  • Cathy Chester moderator
    3 years ago

    Lisa,

    I think I know what group you are talking about. I had a bad experience with it last year. I’ll tell you about it sometime.

    I am going to share this article in my midlife group as well because the same principles of checking reputable and scam websites apply for everyone. Again, thanks for doing the legwork for all of us.

    Cathy

  • Cathy Chester moderator
    3 years ago

    Thank you for your investigative reporting, Lisa, and fir this informative post that the community needs to learn all about. When I was diagnosed there was no information; now look what’s happening. It’s disgraceful and unconscionable and we all need to take a step toward becoming more proactive in avoiding, and reporting, these sites. Great work, as always.

  • Lisa Emrich moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks, Cathy.

    For someone who is not as immersed in this community as we are, it would not be as obvious that this practice was going on. I’ve seen well-known and well-respected individuals in the wider chronic illness community sharing these same websites (without realizing the bigger picture, I’m sure).

    If we were able to get each of these almost 50 sites shut down today, 60 more would pop up tomorrow. Whack-a-mole at its best.

    There is one particular closed MS group on Facebook which seems to be the worst in allowing this material to stay. I had begun reporting posts to the admin who questioned why. He removed a few and then disagreed with my conclusions on the vast majority. I stopped reporting for concern that I might get blocked from the group and I had more research to conduct.

    Thank you for helping to proactively avoid and report these posts/sites as well. I appreciate the help.

    Lisa

  • Laura Kolaczkowski
    3 years ago

    Of all the blogs you have written Lisa, this is probably the most important one ever. thank you for doing all the research and sharing what you found. Indeed it is alarming to see these scams pop up with MS site information being scraped or stolen -you can call it what you will, it’s wrong. I hope that by bringing awareness to the problem we can all unite together and help to at least slow it down. You’re the best! Thanks again. Laura

  • Lisa Emrich moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks, Laura.

    This is an issue that has really gotten under my skin, and not just because I’ve seen each of our articles stolen in recent months. Reporting the practice is not as easy as you might think. But if we help to educate members of the community to learn how to recognize the quality of both posts and websites, maybe we can push back enough so that it does slow down our exposure to this fraud.

    Lisa

  • Poll