Fake family trees online may trip up genealogists

Published: Saturday, Nov. 12 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Internet advertisers helped the Deseret Morning News identify a few genealogy sites that appeared to contain only bogus information, along with plenty of advertiser links. Harrold, however, said he only knows of one generated by Fake Family (even though he said in written information that he has "monetized" several family history sites).

"This is scary to me," said Mindy Koch, an Internet advertiser from North Carolina and an avid genealogist. "There is a great chance that a novice could think this is real. If they download it, and then later upload it into repositories like (the LDS Church's) Ancestral File, those databases would include lots of people who never existed."

Also, she added that it potentially could make search engines more difficult to use for genealogy if bogus sites slow them or account for all the "top hits."

Harrold says such threats are imagined and not real. He said the chances of randomly selected first and last names, coupled with randomly selected places and dates, being shown as married to the same persons as people who actually lived "are not just slim, they are nonexistent."

He said if someone still mistook such information as real and downloaded it, "that's their fault." He adds, "If you want real family information, why are you not looking at Census records? If you're not paying for it, and I didn't ask you to take it, and the name and date don't match your family tree, why are you taking this information? Any onus is on the people who take this information."

Some in genealogy chat groups, however, complained that a name that looks even roughly plausible could be mistaken as real by a novice, or cause even a genealogy expert to spend a lot of time and money to eliminate the possibility it is the person for whom they are seeking.

"Boo hoo," Harrold told the Morning News in response to such complaints. He said "the real story" is how Google and other search engines do not verify content they seek and guide others to for profit. He said databases by the LDS Church and Ancestry.com also contain some incorrect information submitted by patrons. His obviously false data creates less threat to genealogy research than they do, he said.

Harrold suggested in chat groups that he might sue people who referred to his work as a "scam." He also warned the Morning News to be careful what it said about him.

In turn, makers of the Legacy Family Tree software threatened to sue Harrold if he did not remove from his Web site instructions about how to download free software from them that could assist the Fake Family program.

Meanwhile, Mary Kay Evans, spokeswoman for Ancestry.com, a Utah company that, as part of its service, offers a large database of names, said, "It is so unfortunate that there are predators on the Web who target people interested in their genealogy. Genealogy is such a popular hobby that predators are moving to take advantage of that."

Evans, as well as many genealogists and even Harrold himself, urges genealogists to verify carefully all sources of information in genealogy, especially any obtained online from people they do not know. "That is a primary role of Ancestry.com, to help people see source records," Evans said.

Anderson, who operates a small family Web site, also encourages genealogists to actually talk to people operating such sites and ask for all source information.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com

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