'Warrior Eli' Hoax Buster's 6 Tips to Spot Online Hoax

(Image Credit: Getty Images)

One of the best things about the Internet is its power to spread and magnify compassion. We've all been touched by appeals to help a seemingly deserving friend or stranger, and many of us have shared a link or made a donation.

An image of a bracelet posted online by a woman to draw attention to her sick son, nicknamed 'Warrior Eli,' which was later exposed as a hoax. (Image Credit: Courtesy of Richiele Marie Sloan)

Of course, this power has led to hoaxes, and not just Nigerian bank scammers and other criminals. In 2012 Taryn Harper Wright, a Chicago commodities trader, used her spare time and energy to expose the Warrior Eli story - a heart-breaking case involving a boy with cancer whose mother died in an accident, with detailed descriptions and numerous photographs and Facebook pages - as a hoax perpetrated by an Ohio woman.

Watch the full story on "20/20: Faking It" Friday at 10 p.m. ET

Here are Wright's tips for making sure you don't get taken in. They're mostly common sense - but evidently that's no match for a skillfully used photo of an allegedly diseased child.

  1. Google them. Real people generally have real-life Google results, like something from a job, school or community activity. If the only hits that come back are pages that were written by the suspected blogs, websites or Facebook profiles, be wary.
  2. Look carefully at the person's pictures. Do they have only individual pictures of family members and no group shots? Do some pictures look like they could be two different people but are labeled the same individual? Are there lots of generic pictures taken at a distance or at the back of people's heads that could be anyone?
  3. Run images through Google Image Search. It's really easy to use. Go to Google, click on the image tab and then click on the little camera icon on the right side of the search bar. You can either enter the URL of the image or upload it from your computer. If that picture has been used elsewhere online, it will show up in the results.
  4. Verify event details. If someone is reporting a death, there will be obituaries or news articles online about it. If the only record of the death is word of mouth or a Facebook status, be suspicious.
  5. There are Facebook groups where experienced hoax busters can help verify your suspicions. One is my group: Facebook.com/warriorelihoax.
  6. Trust your gut instincts. If someone's story just doesn't add up, don't feel guilty for questioning it. There are people out there with very dramatic lives, but if every single day is a soap opera, do some research.