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A fake news website looking to spread malware lured readers by altering details of a tragically true news story of a fatal car wreck that killed two women and several children.
At least 22 posts we first noticed on April 10, 2017, on the website CountyNewsroom.info carried headlines that declared, "2 moms, 5 kids killed in car crash," followed by the name of a county, such as Stark County or Schuyler County.
Facebook users flagged multiple versions of the story as being potentially fake, as part of the social media site’s efforts to combat fake news in user feeds.
The story is fake, although it does steal details from a real event (more on that in a second). The posts at CountyNewsroom.info appear to exist to goad readers into clicking on them because a familiar county name is used.
When users get to the site, however, pornographic malware can be downloaded onto their computers. We won’t be linking to any of the stories for that reason.
The site made a minimal attempt to look official, using the CountyNewsroom.info domain and listing the author of the posts as "Police." The graphics used evoke breaking news from a real media outlet, and can change from post to post. Some of the articles have comments posted expressing sympathy for the victims, although it’s not entirely clear if those comments are real or not.
There is no contact information on the website, but it is registered to an administrator in Tbilisi, Georgia. The small country in the Caucasus has been a growing source of multiple fake news websites since the 2016 presidential campaign.
We emailed the person listed in the WHOIS lookup, but have not heard back.
The story, meanwhile, gives no indication in which state it is located, but the details of the accident are identical in each version. Two men — Carter Anderson, 35, and Nathan Mcconaghy, 47 — were the sole survivors of a crash that killed their families, the posts said.
According to the story, the two men were in a minivan with their families when the minivan hit a black BMW on the side of the road. The minivan was then struck from behind by "a big rig," sending the minivan toppling into a ravine.
The minivan caught fire, the story read, and the two men managed to escape. Their wives and children, aged 1, 3, 6, 7 and 12 years old, were trapped and died in the fire. The men were severely burned on their hands and faces trying to rescue their families, but had to be restrained by authorities.
"Words can’t describe what that was like when we arrived on scene," a law enforcement official identified only as Officer Dan Williams was quoted in the posts. "It was very horrific seeing them trying to get their families out, us trying to help get their families out. Like I said, the van went up in flames very, very quickly."
The two men were airlifted to an unspecified hospital, the article said.
While that particular accident is fake, the framework of the article has been taken from a real-life tragedy in June 2016 near Gorman, Calif. Some, but not all, of the details were changed.
Two California men named Aaron Hon Wing Ng, 34, of San Francisco and Wei Xiong Li, 45, of Daly City were involved in a nighttime accident that happened as described in the fake post. Their wives and four children, not five, were trapped in their minivan and killed in the fiery wreck. The children were aged 2, 3, 4 and 5, and the two men did suffer burns trying to save their families.
The quote is unaltered, and came from a California Highway Patrol officer named Dan Williams. Another CHP officer also is quoted in some true reporting of the incident.
The author of the post made minimal changes to real news stories about the accident, using the shocking specifics to fool readers into clicking.
But visitors thinking they are reading about a local accident end up being fooled into exposing their computers to an attack with pornographic software.
We rate this story False.
CountyNewsroom.info, "2 moms, 5 kids killed in car crash," accessed April 10, 2017
New York Times, "Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’," Nov. 25, 2016
ABC7.com, "2 bay area mothers, 4 kids killed on 5 fwy in Gorman," June 28, 2016
ABC7News.com, "2 bay area mothers, 4 kids killed in fiery Los Angeles crash," June 29, 2016
WHOIS.com, CountyNewsroom.info domain information, accessed April 10, 2017
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