Jan. 18, 2010 at 3:40 PM ETFake fundraising efforts for the Haiti disaster are spreading like wildfire on Facebook. Dozens of fan pages have been set up, urging users to join and promising a $1 donation for each member. One group this weekend attracted 1.5 million members before it was disabled.
Meanwhile, during the weekend, Facebook officials had to beat back a rumor that the firm had promised a $1 donation for every member that changed their status to include a message about Haiti.
"This status is being tracked, the owners of facebook have confirmed they will send $1 to the rescue fund for the Haiti earthquake disaster for everytime this is cut and paste as a status," read one form of the bogus claim. "You only have to leave it for a minimum of 1 hour. Lets all do our bit to help."Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said the firm took aggressive steps to quell the rumor. It posted a note on its blog on Saturday warning about the bogus message.
"Beware of scams and hoaxes and ensure that your donations for Haiti get to the right places," the social networking company wrote on its blog. Contrary to a current meme, Facebook is not donating $1 for statuses, however we are sharing reputable resources via the "Other Pages" tab on the Global Disaster Relief on Facebook Page."
Later, Facebook began outright blocking the status update. When users come upon a page with the bogus update, a warning message pops up which says, "This message is fraudulent. For legitimate ways to help those in Haiti, please visit the disaster relief page."
The fake fan page fund-raisers had spread, seemingly, to all parts of the globe. Examples could be found claiming to be based in the United Kingdom, and in multiple languages. One Spanish group currently has 215,000 fans, for example.
"We'll look into the groups now," Schnitt said in response to an e-mail inquiry from msnbc.com.
It's not clear why a Facebook user would create the fake fan pages. It could be a mere prank designed to attract the maximum number of users -- Facebook is full of such efforts, like the "I bet Massachusetts can get 1 million fans before any other state does" page.
But such groups could easily be turned to more nefarious uses. A spammer or hacker could harness a large fan group to commit other scams. Fan page administrators are able to contact each fan through status updates, providing a perfect platform for phishing or virus attacks.
The administrator of a group named "EVERY PERSON THAT JOINS WE WILL DONATE £1 TO HELP PEOPLE IN HAITI!" was a woman who identified herself as a college student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The group had about 5,000 fans on Monday morning. When asked why she started the group, the woman said she hadn't, and initially denied being an admin. She said she signed up for the fan page "hoping that I can contribute or do something to help the people of Haiti." Shown the admin page for the group, she offered a different explanation.
"Just check(ed) and you're right. I don't even (know) how I became and admin. Honestly, I did not create this or monitor this," she wrote.
Computer security experts have long warned about what's now called "promiscuous friending" – the habit of many Facebook users to simply accept all friend requests. That opens the door for computer criminals to take advantage of trust relationships formed on the site. Hackers with friend access can post links to viruses on victims' walls, for example, or directly message the friends with Trojan horse e-mails. Fan page administrators have slightly fewer capabilities, but it's still a bad idea to accept any unexpected fan, group, or friend requests.
Concerned users can easily donate money directly to the Red Cross.