The casual reader checking out the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office online would get the impression a Fort Plain man was dramatically arrested Tuesday night, pinned down by three deputies in his driveway after struggling to grab a gun from one of them.
A rather gripping account of the incident was posted Wednesday on a Facebook page claiming to be operated by the department.
The post included one Deputy Bedell saying “he took off, attempting to grab my gun and clip me with the side of the vehicle.”
But Undersheriff Jeff Smith says there was never such an incident, and there isn’t even a Deputy Bedell. The Facebook account is a fake.
“It’s not our account,” Smith said. “We don’t have a Facebook account.”
The dummy account was started Wednesday, just a day after The Associated Press’ Twitter account was famously hacked.
The fake sheriff’s page is admittedly less of a problem than the false reports of White House explosions routed through AP’s Twitter feed Tuesday, but social media expert Lisa Barone, vice president of strategy at Albany-based Overit Interactive, said even small-scale Internet fraud can have an impact.
“After the AP tweet, you could just see the stock market plummet,” she said. “It’s about credibility. People believe what they read.”
In two days online, the fake sheriff’s page cranked out nine posts attracting 273 likes. Most of the posts, unlike Deputy Bedell’s case, were pulled from other sheriff’s departments or media outlets.
One posting claimed the department had partnered with a handful of separate government agencies to implement something called the “2013 Street Smart Campaign.” In reality, there is a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department implementing the campaign this year; it just happens to be in Montgomery County, Md. The fake Facebook page clearly states that it belongs to Montgomery County, N.Y., however.
Only one post is genuine. The very first entry warns against a Jamaican phone scam targeting seniors in the area. The same warning was previously published on the sheriff’s department’s official website, which is linked to the county’s website, www.co.montgomery.ny.us.
Barone said hacking a Twitter account is difficult for the average person, but creating a fake Facebook page is surprisingly easy.
“There’s no verification process,” she said, “so anyone can pretend to be anyone.”
It’s especially easy when the person or organization being targeted doesn’t otherwise have a Facebook presence. Since there is no official Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office page on Facebook, there’s nothing for suspicious readers to check.
There are a few clues to its counterfeit nature, however. The cover photo is badly pixelated, and many of the posts don’t read like typical officially drafted news releases. A post thanking visitors to the page for their involvement is followed by four exclamation points.
Barone offered a few other easy ways to check for social media legitimacy.
“Check recent activity,” she said. “If they joined two days ago or if they made 500 friends in a night, there might be a problem.”
At this point, Smith isn’t sure who is behind the fake page. He declined comment on any consequences the culprit may face or the possible effects a page of misinformation may have.
“We’re still investigating,” he said.
Smith also wouldn’t say if the suspect whose actions are detailed in the fictitious account on Facebook — supposedly a 36-year-old Fort Plain resident — is a real person, or based on a real person.
According to Barone, the department’s first course of action should be an email to Facebook, requesting the page be taken down.
“Unfortunately that may not be a quick process,” she said. “They should really make their own page.”
Smith would not say what the department’s strategy will be for dealing with the fake page, not wanting to tip off whoever created it. As of Thursday evening, the page was still active on Facebook, with nothing indicating it is fake.