When several scams purporting to offer free gift certificates to Starbucks hit Facebook in October 2011, they achieved viral status as users clicked and shared to get the deal. What most failed to notice was that there was no deal – the offer was a scam that attempted to gain personal information from Facebook users, putting them at risk of identity theft and other related cybercrimes.

In fact, almost all Facebook scams have common red flags that can alert users to their danger. When using Facebook, stay alert, and keep an eye out for these common hallmarks of a hoax.

1. Sensational Headlines

Many Facebook scams lure users in with headlines that would put most tabloids to shame in their use of celebrity names, sex, curiosity and exclamatory punctuation. For example, one scam presented a video along with the title “WTF?! I Lost ALL Respect for Miley Cyrus After Watching THIS Video!” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), rather than producing the promised video, this scam took users to a fake Facebook page, asked them to fill out a survey and may even have prompted users to download dangerous files to their computers. Sensational headlines can be hard to resist, especially when they go viral and appear all over Facebook. Resist the urge to click any links that promise a shocking video or image. In most cases, these links don’t lead to the scandalous goods they promise, and they are more likely to put you in an awkward situation of your own.

2. Offer Is Too Good To Be True

Have you ever heard of a corporation giving away thousands of $100 gift certificates online? That’s exactly what a Facebook scam that claimed to be from Starbucks offered users, many of whom not only took the bait, but shared the scam with their Facebook friends. Many Facebook scams appeal to our desire for free stuff; unfortunately, getting anything for free is rare, which may explain why so many people fall for these scams in the first place. Some scams sink even lower by appealing to our emotions and sense of compassion, as in one hoax that claimed that a young boy would receive a free heart transplant if enough users chose to “Like” or share the circulating post. While it’s easy to understand why people are compelled to click such messages, stop and think before you do so. If the message’s promise seems unlikely, it probably has ulterior motives.

3. Strange URLs

Many Facebook scams take users to another page. These pages may look like official company sites, or even like a Facebook page, but anytime you are sent away from Facebook is a red flag. If you’ve clicked a link and are sent to another site, check the URL that appears in your browser bar. When you are visiting Facebook, it should always show http://www.facebook.com as the first part of the URL. Scammers may resort to using similar URLs, so check carefully and avoid prompts to login to Facebook from any URL other than http://www.facebook.com. If you are sent to a different site that you don’t recognize, close the page immediately. In many cases, odd or misspelled URLs are another clue of a hoax. In the Starbucks scam, some users were sent to a page with the URL http://ilovestarbuck.com. Do you really think a company would misspell its name in its own marketing?

4. Cut and Paste

Any message that prompts you to paste a code into your browser is a sure sign of a scam. This is because Facebook’s policies disallow running JavaScript within Facebook. Prompting you to paste code directly into your browser is a way for scammers to circumvent this prohibition. JavaScript is banned on Facebook for good reason: it can send users to a malware-infected page, or even automatically launch malware on a user’s computer.

5. Upgrade or Download a Program

Downloading a program or uploading upgrades to a program from Facebook can also introduce malware and other viruses to your computer system. Any link that prompts you do download a file of any kind should be avoided. Facebook isn't in the business of keeping your PC up to date! If you do need to download a program or update an existing program, always go directly to the website of the company that produces the software.

6. Bad Grammar

For whatever reason, many viral Facebook scams use not only sensational headlines, but those headlines often contain poor spelling and grammar as well. For example, one link that appeared on Facebook in December 2010 sported the following title: “OMG...YOU WILL CRY TODAY AFTRE WATCHING THIS HORRIBLE THING HAPPEND CALIFORNIA...!! IF YOU FROM USA THAN HELP THIS MAN. Warning: IT’S NOT SUITABLE TO WATCH FOR HEART PATIENT.” Notice the number of spelling and grammatical errors in this one headline. This is a sure sign of a Facebook scam. In this case, there was no video, but some users may have found themselves crying anyway after providing the scammers with the right to email them, post to their Facebook wall and access all their Facebook data.

7. Asks for Info

Although marketers often do request that consumers fill out surveys in exchange for contest entries or prizes, this will always occur on the company’s official Web page. Anytime you are prompted to fill out a survey and enter personal identifying information, you should be extremely cautious - particularly if you accessed the survey through Facebook. Many Facebook hoaxes that promise gift certificates or other benefits have prompted users to enter their names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal information. Needless to say, these users never got a gift certificate, but they did put themselves at risk by providing so much information to potential cyber criminals.

In Conclusion

With so many users, Facebook is ripe for scammers looking to launch malware and attain personal information. Fortunately, you can determine whether a link, offer or anything else that appears in your feed is legitimate with just a little investigation. If you still aren’t sure, enter the title of the content you are tempted to click into Google. If it’s a scam, chances are that Internet hoax busters are already on the case.