Karen Belz
Updated Jun 25, 2014 @ 11:09 am

I have to tell you guys the truth—I fell for an online hoax the other day. Not only did I fall for an online hoax, but the hoax article was posted to my Facebook page shortly after announcing to my coworkers, “We did it, you guys! We finally cloned a dinosaur!” Way to go, British scientists!

I realized my error shortly after my loud outburst. No dinosaurs had been cloned after all—a website just posted a picture of a newly born kangaroo with a false headline, and some fake quotes.

Sure, it could have been way worse, but I felt pretty darn stupid.

I wasn’t the only person getting pranked by the Internet this week. Numerous news sites reported on the incident that “happened” at a KFC a few days ago. A young girl named Victoria, who was badly injured by an unfortunate pit bull attack, was told to leave the restaurant after other patrons felt her scars were too disturbing. In response, we all gave the girl a gigantic Internet hug, donating money towards funds for her medical bills and her future. While this girl is definitely a victim, it’s not for the treatment she supposedly received at KFC — it’s due to the fact that the story has been reported to have been a hoax, started up by her family.

The Internet has proven in many instances that the world isn’t a terrible place. So many creative projects have been funded, so many classrooms have been helped, and so many charities have received assistance based on the kindness and compassion of strangers. But when upsetting (or as far as the dinosaur cloning goes, exhilarating) stories can’t be proven, we’re left feeling a bit used. And maybe a little upset.

Here are a few ways to spot the hoaxes before you go on a Facebook sharing tear:

1. When In Doubt, Use Snopes.

Snopes was the first result that came up after Googling “Dinosaur Clone Story,” and boy, I wish I checked with them first. Snopes has been the top Urban Legend Reference since 1995. They take their work seriously, and I can’t remember a time when they’ve been wrong.

2. Think Before Acting.

Fully digest a story before sharing on Facebook about how ridiculous it is. I’m sure the KFC franchise mentioned in the story became a massive target for those who felt true, human pain over Victoria’s story—surely, these past few days have been difficult all of KFC’s employees who didn’t deserve the criticism. If a story seems like it has a few loopholes, stay informed before acting out on your outrage. And make sure you keep an eye on stories like this for a few days. The truth will eventually rise to the surface.

3. When It Comes To E-mail, Never Respond To Anything Asking For Bank Account Information.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but these types of scams still occur for a reason. Because the sender looks like they have a legit Paypal account, and hey, you’ve had no reason not to trust their correspondence with you before, right? Scammers will craft their e-mails to look exactly like the real deal, and all it takes is a bad night of sleep to accidentally send information that you never meant to share. When in doubt, always contact the company directly by phone and ask if the e-mail is legit.

4. When Donating Money, Stick To People In Your Social Circle.

It’s absolutely sweet when someone sends you a link regarding a cause that seriously warms your heart. These days, online fundraising is becoming more and more popular. But the truth is, it’s still risky to donate money (especially larger sums) based on nothing more than a story. If you read about a sick child, consider contacting the fundraising person who’s managing it—typically a parent or relative—and ask about other ways that you can help. Do they need coloring books, or toys, or a general greeting card to make them smile? This way, you’re still helping them out by giving them items that have a direct purpose. Plus, once you get to know the contact a bit better, you might feel more confident in giving a financial donation.

5. If It Seems Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is.

I see this mostly with job postings. When you’re unemployed, it’s always tempting to apply to the place that guarantees a six-figure salary with no experience necessary, but the legit companies will actually state their name, give an e-mail address that isn’t encoded, and either hint at the salary or tell you they’ll discuss it with you in person. Know how much of a bummer it is to dress to impress, solely to realize you’ll be selling vacuums door to door? It’s a major bummer. You don’t need to spend your time on scams like that.

If you’ve fallen for a scam or a hoax before, don’t worry—it happens to all of us. Just make sure to act with your head before your heart, and remember that just because it’s on the Internet, it doesn’t mean that it’s true.

As for Victoria—even though her story didn’t pan out, our hearts still go out to her. At only three years old, she’s experienced more physical and emotional pain than most people could tolerate. We hope for a quick recovery, and hope that the money that KFC is donating regardless of the hoax goes directly towards her bright future.

(Image Credits: Shutterstock)