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How Do I Know What to Believe Online?

Some time ago a good friend — a mentor and inspiration for Ask Leo!, in fact — fell victim to a particularly nasty form of fraud. It’s an important lesson for all of us trying to understand what we can, and cannot believe on the internet.

Here’s what happened.

There’s a web site promoting, for lack of a better term, a “get rich quick” scheme. I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to give any press or links or page views. In fact, the specifics aren’t important. The situation is.

On this web site, near the bottom is a glowing testimonial. From my friend.

A testimonial that he never provided.

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The testimonial is much like you’d see on any 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 authorities (which he did), and getting angry about it (ditto), or perhaps engaging an attorney (I’m sure he considered it), there’s actually little to be done to 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 I make my living these days by publishing on the internet. But really, how often do you blindly assume what you find in Google search is legitimate? Or that a web site you stumble upon happens to be on the up-and-up? Or that all the glowing product reviews were written people people who actually used the product?

How often do you take the time to research — I mean 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 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.

I have to be careful of the same here on Ask Leo!. I do occasionally 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.

My advice?

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 all reviews or testimonials are bogus – I’m just saying 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 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.


I’m also not saying “don’t shop on line”, or “don’t respond to online offers”. 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. Smile)

Speaking of legit, if you found this article helpful you’ll love Confident Computing! You’ll find many testimonials there, and they’re all very real, culled from feedback I’ve received over the years. That weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and increase your confidence with technology.

Subscribe now, and I’ll see you there soon,

12 comments on “How Do I Know What to Believe Online?”

  1. Here’s my unsolicited testimony. Try the WOT (web of trust) plug in for Firefox and IE. It’s a user rated service that warns about untrustworthy websites. It’s not perfect but it’s a good tool in avoiding scams. BTW they give Ask Leo an excellent rating. :)

  2. The Internet needs a User Guide, learning by making mistakes can be quite costly.

    Sadly, the point here also applies to messages, warnings, pop-ups and the like from your computer. You can’t trust them either. So many people get tricked by phony virus infection warnings. Below is a link to an example I recently wrote about, regarding a warning to upgrade the Flash Player plugin. In this case the warning was mostly legit, but the point being, most people can’t judge these things. Sad state of affairs.

  3. Leo, Good article, but I think that the site should be named. Ond of the great things about the internet is that the word (both good and bad) gets around. I somehow doubt tht identifying a site as containing a false endorsement is grounds for a lawsuit, and you seem to have plenty of proof that it is doing just that. On the other hand if you know that authorities are investigating the site and do not want to directly alert the site owner(s), not ID’ing it makes sense.

    I agree with you on WOT. I have seen legitimate sites blocked by WOT because some people did not like the political views expressed on the site. OT and other tools should not involve itself in blocking free speech, but it does. I’d recommend that Firefox users use Link Extend as well, since it shows the site ratings by a number of product vendors similar to WOT, like SiteAdvisor, WOT, Browser Defender, and about 3-4 others.

    My friend has idenfied the site publicly, and has contacted the appropriate authorities with all the details, so there’s no real benefit to be had by my naming names here. (Though perhaps I should head out to WOT and post a review on it. Smile)


  4. A friend and entertainment promoter used to dissect reviews from legitimate wire sources. If the press called a production an incredible flop, he would say that critics called the show “incredible…” and simply omit the word flop. Though this wasn’t a fabrication, it wasn’t the WHOLE truth; some of his means were less than licit. When confronted and questioned about his tactics, he said, [i]”Kid,”[/i] (I was only 30 something at the time) [i]”never let the truth stand in the way of a good promotion.”[/i] I say, take that advice and apply it wherever you think it fits.

  5. It’s not just the internet, and it’s not just hick rubes getting taken for a ride. May I point out a recent name? Bernie Madoff? The internet is no better, or worse, an investment venue than the other channels.

  6. As tricky dick said “Trust but verify”

    Even internet “experts” must be suspect. Have you read about the expert, Randall C Kennedy, who quoted his alias, Devil Mountain CTO Craig Barth, for stories. More info at:

    Actually that was Ronald Reagan, but the sentiment is accurate. As I’ve said before, everything on the internet is best approached with a very healthy dose of skepticism.

  7. I just google with the words product and review where product is the particular item we are wanting to learn about.

    There is no need to even visit those webpages. The opening lines say everything about it. Good or bad.


  8. First, a Pet Peeve: “Internet”, not “internet”, always. It’s a proper noun. You might notice, Leo, that you’ve got your commenters doing it, too — grrrr! Please! ALWAYS capitalize the word “Internet”, folks! That’s the correct spelling & usage!

    Now: with THAT off my chest…

    The way I typically decide on the trustworthiness of a recommendation (especially a computer program) is based upon the trustworthiness of the recommender. I happen to have a short list of what I might term “Trusted Recommenders” — perhaps they might be of interest to you. In no particular order:

    1. Bob Rankin and/or Patrick Crispin (The Internet Tourbus)
    2. Brian Livingston and/or Fred Langa et. al (WindowsSecrets)
    3. Kim Komando (Her multitudinous varieties of E-Newsletter)
    4. And of course (need I even say it?) Leo A. Notenboom (Ask Leo!)

    I have come to respect these sources as reliable and trustworthy, and any recommendation any of them might offer is generally presumed valid and safe, at least initially and barring any counterindication, and particularly so if more than one of them has mentioned the same item.

    More generally, good spelling, proper grammar, and a clean page counts for something (not much, but something). If I see an item on a page free of errors, I tend to believe the item itself is likelier than otherwise to itself be error-free. On the other hand, if the page is full of typos or spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, it doesn’t much matter the reputation of the page-writer, I don’t put a lot of faith in what he writes just on that basis alone! Who would trust in the carefulness of a person — a programmer, perhaps? — who is too careless, even to SPELL correctly?!?

  9. None of those ‘trust programs’ are up to date although some are better than others.
    If a web site makes a change to something nefarious (or vice versa), they won’t be ‘updated’ till the next sweep. I use WOT. I’ve had to say “Oops!” a few times and I’ve been to ‘red’ sites and not had any problems.
    And it’s ‘e-mail’ not ’email’. Kinda like ‘snail mail’ not ‘snailmail’!


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