Facebook 'farming' scam preys on sympathy to garner 'likes,' money

Eugene, Ore. -- A photo is worth a thousand words. And on Facebook, it can be worth a million likes.

Years ago, Terri and Jeff Johnson posted a photo of their daughter, Katie, on a website devoted to families who have children with Down syndrome.

Terri started getting strange emails and Facebook messages last October that mentioned her daughter's photo had since gone viral.

She looked up the post and saw that Katie's smiling face had gathered over 3,000,000 likes.

The story along with the photo was completely made up, claiming "This is my sister Mallory. She has Down syndrome and doesn't think she's beautiful. Please like this photo."

"Your stomach just drops," Terri told our news team. "It was kind of surreal that not only had someone had stolen her identity, but it had gone viral."

The Johnson's were victims of a practice called Facebook "farming", which is a scam that involves stealing a sympathetic photo and asking people to "like" it. Once it gets enough likes, they sell that spot to businesses for advertisements.

Travis Mayfield, the Social Media Director for KOMO News, said people are making money off of these pages that lure you in to click "like" by asking, do you care about kids with cancer? Or premature babies? What about war heroes?

"You feel heartless if you're not hitting 'like'. It's a very easy thing to do and your friends have already done it," Mayfield said. "When they have enough likes they can strip all of those photos away and sell it to whoever wants to buy it. And there's a very robust online marketplace where businesses or even worse, scammers, can go in and buy those pages."

Johnson tried to tell people it was a hoax, but her words were drowned out by other posters.

"I have never seen anything so out of control personally in my life," Johnson said. "I couldn't even get a comment in the stream."

A mother from Puyallup Washington had a similar experience after she posted a baby photo of her son.

In the photo Jenna Buswell's son Cassen has visible bruising and lesions from a rare genetic condition. In the reposted version, someone promised a prayer for every "like" given to the photo of the bruised boy. More than 141,000 people responded.

"You're like, 'Oh that's really sad. I'm going to like that.' And I had done that. I'm guilty of that. Not knowing that these pictures have been stolen and these pages are making money," Buswell said.

For More Information:

The real story on Katie

The real story on Casen Buswell