Experts warn of missing child hoaxes online

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 08-08-2023 6:09 PM

GREENFIELD — There seems to be no limit to the depths scammers will go to create a victim, with fictitious missing child posts serving as one of the latest online trends.

Social media posts meant to tug at a community’s heartstrings with a youngster’s photo and some excruciating backstory could be simply another vehicle to steal personal information and money from unsuspecting people on the internet. But experts say there are ways to help filter out genuine posts from scam ones.

“I would just have a skeptical eye on anything I see on Facebook,” said Greenfield Deputy Police Chief William Gordon. “It’s getting to a ridiculous level.”

Gordon said good indicators of a fake posting is if there is no way to comment on it or if the information cannot be verified through a trusted source.

“You have to just be very careful,” he said.

Gordon said anyone who needs to report a missing child should call local police immediately. He also mentioned the Greenfield Police Department has not received any complaints regarding scam posts floating around Greenfield social media pages, such as Everything Greenfield.

In July, one Facebook user with a keen eye shared a scam she noticed. She posted a collection of three posts of three separate boys — all identified as a missing 8-year-old boy named Brandon Smith, each in heartwarming photos with dogs. The text with these photos is identical and inexplicably makes reference to a silver alert — a public notification sent out to alert communities about missing senior citizens.

John Bischoff III, vice president of the missing child division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said social media can be both a blessing and curse when it comes to missing child cases.

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“It’s an amazing tool to share information with the public quickly and, in most of these cases, time is of the essence,” he said. “We want these images out quickly and we want them going far. But it can also be a catalyst for rumors and misinformation.”

Bischoff said there are several “red flags” people can look for when they spot a post about a missing child. He said anyone online should ensure the post is coming from a trusted source, such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a police agency or a legitimate nonprofit that works to help bring home missing children. He also said a true missing child post will never ask for money or personal information.

Bischoff said anyone who is suspicious about a missing child post should visit missingkids.org, where they can search a specific child’s name or look for information on all the reported missing children in a certain area. He said you will never see floating around the internet any bona fide National Center for Missing & Exploited Children posters of kids that have been found.

“We always keep the most relevant information out in the public eye,” he explained.

Bischoff added that hoax missing child posts and posters take attention away from actual children in need.

“On top of that, who knows what their motive is for putting up fake or false information,” he said. “Missing child posters are extremely important for us as an organization, because it helps keeps their image, keep their story out in the community.”

He encourages everyone to report bogus posts to the social media company.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.

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