1. Can You Trust What You Read Here?

How do you know what you’re reading is worth reading? How do you know you can trust what someone has written? How do you know that someone isn’t having you on, leading you up the garden path, on a trail of deceit, fraud and intrigue, which will end up with you the bankrupt victim of yet another Internet scam?

Actually, it’s not so difficult to stay safe here. In the same way that you’re unlikely to fall for a major scam off-line, you’re unlikely to fall for one on-line, and here you have the added bonus of lots of other people keeping an eye open as well. Phoniness is surprisingly easy to detect on our discussion boards.

Let’s get back to basics. When you’re talking to people in the pub you can usually answer the following questions pretty quickly:

“Is he one of my friends?”

“Is she a regular?”

“Do I owe this guy a drink?”

“Has he just walked in off the street?”

“Are they drunk?”

“Am I drunk?”

These are similar to the questions you want to ask yourself online. Continuing the pub analogy, consider trust in four situations:

  1. You’re in the pub, you’re talking to your best friend. You trust them a lot.
  2. You’re in the pub, you’re talking to one of the regulars who you have heard many times talking to other people, but have never chatted to yourself. You have always quite liked what that person said. You trust them, but not quite as much as your best friend.
  3. You’re in the pub and you end up talking to someone off the street. You don’t know them at all. They have no past history with you, so you’re naturally more cautious.
  4. You are in the pub, there is the distant sound of breaking glass from the car park and a few minutes later a geezer walks in and starts trying to sell a car radio with wires hanging out the back.

Our behaviour in each of these four situations is entirely understandable – of course we’re going to be more cautious with people we don’t know. If they talk good sense, however, and do so repeatedly, they will go up in our estimation. On the other hand, if they seem about as trustworthy as Del Boy in “Only Fools and Horses”, we’re likely to steer clear of them.

The principles are the same in the online world; it’s just that we use different clues to help identify who is worth listening to and who not. Here are some things to think about when assessing the credibility of a message on a discussion board:

Is it a user name you recognise?

If so, and if you like the person, you may even want to consider adding them to your ‘Favourite Fools’ list by clicking on the happy face just to the right of their name. That way you’ll be able to see their latest posts in the “Favourites & Replies” area.

How many lucky charms does the poster have?

These tell you how many posts a user has made, how many people have them as a ‘Favourite Fool, and whether they have received a lot of recommendations in proportion to their posts.

If they have any, their ‘lucky charms’ will be next to the user’s name at the top of the message, and these are the lucky charms you’re likely to see:

1 star One star for 50 posts
2 stars Two stars for 250 posts
3 stars Three stars for 500 posts
Red star A big red star for 1,000 posts
Gold star A big gold star for 5,000 posts
Green star A big green star for 20,000 posts
Trophy A Trophy awarded to the 50 “most loved” Fools
Crown A Crown awarded to the 50 Fools with the highest Rec-to-Post ratio

Of course, sheer volume of posts is no guarantee of someone’s credibility or trustworthiness, but someone with a lot of posts has at least built up a ‘posting history’ at the Fool, on which people can judge them. And if they are a well ‘loved’ Fool (ie, lots of people have them as a ‘Favourite Fool’), and/or they have a high Recommendation-to-Post ratio, then that may reflect their standing in the Fool community – although do bear in mind that recs given on ‘social’ boards have no real relevance to someone’s ability as a stock-picker, and, conversely, a well-respected investing poster may know nothing about legal or debt issues.

There’s also a icon, which indicates a new poster – it’s displayed for 60 days following someone’s first post. Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone’s being a new poster – indeed, we welcome new posters, and the more the merrier – if a new poster makes their debut by promoting some ‘hot’ investment opportunity or get-rick-quick money-making scheme, then you may be right to be skeptical about it!

How many recommendations does the post have?

These are displayed on a discussion board’s main page, in a column to the right of the message title. They’re also displayed at the top right of each message. Many, if not most, messages attract no recommendations (often abbreviated to just ‘recs’), so one or two is quite good going. Double figures of recommendations suggests a good post. And the most recent messages with the most recommendations are listed on the “Best Of” page.

Bear in mind, though, that people may recommend a post for several different reasons. Some may do so because they think it’s a great post; others because they agree with one bit of it, but not another; others still because they like the poster and generally recommend their posts as a matter of course; yet others may have recommended it not because they think it’s a terrific post, but because they disagree with the post it’s a reply to and it’s an indirect way of expressing that disagreement. And at least one rec may be the result of accidentally clicking “Recommend it!” rather than “Report this Post”.

In other words, recommendations are not a guarantee of a worthwhile and trustworthy post. But whilst a few recs might be the result of ‘mixed-motives’ or ‘accident’, tens or even (if very rarely) hundreds are likely to indicate that there’s something rather good about the message concerned.

Now, read the post.

This is, of course, the acid test. Is it well-written? Does it contain apparently useful information, backed up by facts? Is it well-argued and do its conclusions accord with common sense? Or does it display any tell-tale features of the ramper’ the person who tries to manipulate a share price for their own gain? In our archives you will find an article written by Alan Oscroft, entitled, “The Ramper’s Charter“, and this details the classical features of an attempted share ramp, which often include:

  • The subject of the posting is a ‘penny stock’
  • No facts
  • Innuendo and rumour
  • More innuendo and rumour
  • LOTS OF CAPITALS
  • Lots of exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Excessive Attention-grabbing Formatting!
  • Por grammer and speling

Also, check the personal profile of the poster.

You do this by clicking on the username of the poster. This takes you through to their ‘profile page’, which lists information about the person, including how many posts they have made and how many recommendations their posts have received, plus various other things they may have chosen to fill in themselves. You have one of these too, if you are a registered member of the Motley Fool. Filling in your own profile page helps to establish trust.

From their profile you can also view someone’s recent messages, to get an idea of what the general tone of their messages has been. Not only that, but you can see how many recommendations each their recent messages have attracted.

You’ll find this process becomes pretty automatic after you’ve been reading the boards for a while and you’ll get to know who you want to listen to and who not. To be honest, although we’ve talked a lot here about how to spot untrustworthy posts, you’re going to find that the vast majority of posts – and posters – on our boards are completely honest.