'Fake news' about attacks on the elderly is being used to frighten Northlanders into buying personal security alarms from a US website.
The fake online report, which claims police are urging people to buy a safety device after an assault on a 67-year-old woman, is designed to look like a genuine news story, and has been shared unwittingly by Facebook users.
It gives an account of an attempted robbery as the victim was doing her grocery shopping, and quotes police as saying attacks on seniors had increased dramatically during September, many victims suffering serious injury and financial loss. The location of the attack is changed to match the reader's location.
The report quotes an unnamed police officer as saying, "This trend of targeting seniors is deeply disturbing, but it's a harsh reality we have to deal with. It is absolutely imperative that our elderly residents stay on high alert and protect themselves by carrying a personal alarm."
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It also provides links to a US website selling SafeSound personal alarms, which it claims are "saving millions of lives," for about NZ$60.
The problem is, both the attack and the police officer's advice are fiction.
The Northern Advocate's Kerikeri office has fielded calls from people who read about the attack and wondered why it hadn't been reported in the newspaper.
One woman, who did not want to be named, said she became suspicious because the location of the attack given in the story — Kerikeri, Whangārei or Auckland — changed depending on where she was when she used her laptop. Other details of the supposed attack remained the same.
One of her colleagues, however, was convinced that an elderly woman really had been assaulted in a Kerikeri supermarket carpark, and that she had escaped only thanks to a personal alarm.
A spokesman for the Commerce Commission said it had not investigated or received any complaints about the SafeSound advertisement, so couldn't comment on it.
The top of the story carries the word 'Advertorial,' while the bottom of the page has a disclaimer saying it is not an actual news article. Those who contacted the Advocate didn't see the disclaimer, which follows a series of reader comments that also appear to be fake. The marketing company has an Idaho address.