In an extraordinary case of invasion of privacy, a teenaged girl in Nova Scotia was shocked to log onto Facebook to find her deceased mother hawking a supposed cure-all.
Fifteen-year-old Shelby Breimer, of Truro, N.S., lost her mother, Helen, to a long battle with breast and lung cancer nine months ago. Yet a few days ago, the teenager saw an image of her mother on the Internet, supposedly singing the praises of CleanseProX, a product sold on a site called PurgeColon.net.
"It seems really shady," said the teenager. "It was kind of a shock. I mean, my Mom is not here and then all of a sudden. … It just scared me."
The unsettling message appeared after someone had hacked into her late mom's account on Facebook, a global social-networking site, to update her "status."
"I'm 81/2 pounds lighter thanks to the FREE trial pack of this new colon cleanser that I got!" read the fake testimonial, directing readers to claims the product can help in "conquering colon cancer."
The same words have been put in the mouths of untold thousands of Internet users of late, whose common complaint is that someone hijacked their identities.
Popular social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are the new happy hunting grounds for spammers who, like the rest of us, no longer rely merely on e-mail and traditional websites.
Few Western countries are as spam-friendly as Canada, experts say, where there are few laws to police against unwanted, unethical and largely untrue advertisements. "We're the only major country without anti-spam legislation," said Michael Geist, a professor who specializes in Internet law.
Parliament urgently needs to pass the Electronic Commerce Protection Act now before committee, he argued. But he complained opposition parties are trying to "water down" the Conservative bill.
Fake testimonials on Facebook fly in the face of assurances the company has given to its own users - and privacy officials - that it will safeguard personal information and photos from being plundered by unscrupulous third parties.
"When a user passes away, we memorialize their account to protect their privacy," Facebook vowed in one public posting this summer. Another added that, "We prohibit ads on Facebook Platform that cause a bad user experience, are misleading, or otherwise violate our policies."
For her Facebook profile, Helen Breimer had posted an image of herself on horseback - one of the activities the 46-year-old hair salon owner had put on her "bucket" list of things to do shortly before she died.
It is alongside this image that PurgeColon's claims appear. The hack into her account appears to have been random and there is no evidence the spammers knew she had battled cancer and lost.
The fake testimonial directs viewers to a general site. It asks them to type in identifying information that, presumably, would be used to create even more spam. Try to navigate away, and a popup window implores the reader to take advantage of the remedy's $3.47 "last-minute discount" for a "risk-free trial bottle."
Friends and family of Ms. Breimer called a number associated with the site to complain, but to no avail.
"He hardly spoke English," said Shelby Breimer, adding that the person on the other end of the line was only concerned with getting money or, failing that, more personal details.
Before she died, Helen had tried to draw attention to legitimate medicine. "My message to the public is to believe in yourself … you know your own body," She told the Truro Daily News last year.
She warned people to be aggressive about safeguarding their health during medical appointments. She was mostly worried about how her failing health would affect her daughter, Shelby. "She's the only person I have and it's hard to see her suffer. … I wish I had the power to find a cure for cancer."