(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK, May 17 (Reuters) - Hey, we have a great stock tip for you - a stone-cold lock, guaranteed profits! Do you believe us? We hope not.
The bad news is that financial "fake news" does not present itself as such very easily, and it is everywhere these days.
A recent Harris Poll conducted for the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) found that 63 percent of Americans say that fake news "has made it more difficult to make critical financial decisions." And it is not just suckers or confused seniors who are at risk. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently issued an investor alert entitled "Beware of Stock Recommendations on Investment Research Websites."
The SEC also just charged a whopping 27 parties with fraud - from company CEOs, to communications firm execs and writers - all of whom conspired to talk up certain stocks and goose share prices. The writers did not divulge that they were paid to do so - and in some cases, explicitly (and falsely) stated that they were not compensated. Some parties even engaged in "scalping," which is the unloading of inflated shares after issuing the phony positive "news."
"Fake news is a powerful tool for wrongdoers to profit at the consumers' expense," said Neal Stern, a CPA and member of AICPA's Financial Literacy Commission. "These articles are aimed to purposely mislead people into believing they are being presented with important financial information or insights that are not supported by facts."
According to the AICPA survey, such fakery is complicating important issues, such as healthcare decisions (for 44 percent of respondents). It is also muddying the waters for stock-market investing (40 percent), retirement (36 percent) and buying or selling a house (35 percent).
It can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is not, especially in an era where we do not get our information from a single trusted news source.
Consider the venues where the SEC suggests keeping your guard up against fake news include: social media, investment newsletters, online ads, email, Internet chatrooms, direct mail, newspapers, magazines, TV and radio.
AICPA's Stern said fake financial news generally has three objectives: to get clicks to drive traffic, to get sign-ups for programs that charge them to solve whatever problem the fake news is "reporting" on and outright scams to get money and personal data.
The following are a few tips for sorting through the blizzard of fake financial news:
- Trace the source. If an outlet is unfamiliar to you, is riddled with typos or grammatical mistakes, lacks hard evidence and cites unnamed experts, or makes extreme claims, then be very wary, AICPA suggested. Try to corroborate the information by seeing whether the news is being reported by known, legitimate outlets. Keep an especially watchful eye for "spoofed" websites, purposefully designed to look similar to those of well-known news organizations, or "sponsored content" that looks like editorial copy, but is actually an advertisement.
- Crosscheck credentials. If an author's bio makes them out to be a Warren Buffett in the making, your alarm should go off. The SEC advises to watch out for fake or exaggerated credentials, and writers who use pseudonyms to push multiple versions of the same story. If the author claims to be a legitimate adviser, there are ways to confirm that easily as well as any past violations or disciplinary action at the SEC's Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website or FINRA's BrokerCheck.
- Set up firewalls. Before you pull the trigger on an investment, pass the idea by someone you trust like your significant other or your financial planner, or perhaps both. Having those kinds of personal circuit-breakers in place will help you avoid spur-of-the-moment investment moves. "Often my job is just to tell people, 'Please don't do that,'" said Boston-based financial planner Chris Chen.
- Educate yourself. Transform yourself into a more sophisticated media consumer by honing your bias-recognition skills. A good starting point is the AICPA's financial education site. If you have a specific question, the site's "Money Doctors" - a panel of volunteer CPAs with personal-finance training - can pitch in.
- Take your time. Fake financial news tends to thrive by suggesting that you have to act right away or miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. That is a big, fluttering red flag. "Making a snap financial decision can be dangerous," said Stern. Instead, put the information aside and come back to it later. Odds are it will not stand up to sober second thought.
(Editing by G Crosse)