How to Spot Fake Stock Photos (and Attribute the Right Person)

Spammers and other unscrupulous advertisers are always looking for new ways to get you click on their pages. One of the latest tactics is to steal popular and useful stock images—like the kind you sometimes see in news articles—and re-upload them elsewhere.

If part of your job is finding and using images, and more importantly, making sure it’s legal to use them and to properly attribute them, this can be a serious problem. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself.

Why Fake a Free Image?

So why would someone try to fake a free stock image if even the original photographer isn’t getting paid for it? It’s actually the free part that makes it lucrative: spammers are looking for stock photos that are posted with licensing terms that allow them to be used freely and modified, especially if that includes for-profit applications.

The hook, as it were, is in the credit. A responsible writer or publisher always credits their photos in the article. Spammers are taking advantage of that courtesy: on popular sites like Flickr, they’ll upload other people’s photos and insist that you credit to a link to an external website. And that website is what they actually want to drive traffic to.

In fact, the traffic is secondary: by building up a network of links all going to a third-party site, they can enhance its search engine optimization and drive it up the rankings on tools like Google, irrespective of its actual content or value. It’s a dishonest way to create traffic for the web, and it’s built upon the theft of images from honest stock photographers.

Shady Attribution Links Are a Dead Giveaway

Take this image, for example. I used it as a generic illustration of a public relations office in an article last year. You can see it at this Flickr address, and using the site’s tools, it’s tagged with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license. That means that it’s free to use and modify for use in any other project, even if that project is part of a for-profit enterprise. The only restriction is that attribution (credit) must be given to the original photographer.

And there’s the rub: the Flickr user isn’t the original photographer. I didn’t find the image on Flickr, I found it on stock photo site Pexels, originally uploaded by Eric Bailey in 2014. The Flickr image, from someone calling themselves “Hamza Butt,” was uploaded to the site on June 28th of 2017. It’s a fake.

Now here’s the real kicker. The Flickr description says to credit a third-party website instead of Flickr, or even the photographer. That site advertises a series of treadmills from a single manufacturer, and what a coincidence: the article is dated just a few days before the copied photo was uploaded to Flickr. And of course, the site itself doesn’t even include the image in question.

Looking through the other photos uploaded by “Hamza Butt,” you can see that every single one includes generous licensing terms (searchable with Flickr’s filters) and an insistence that any use of the image must be attributed to cheap advertising sites. The entire profile is nothing but a link farm, and it’s perpetuating itself by uploading generic, useful stock images that can be spread around the web.

Check Image Info and Reverse Image Searches for Fakes

So asking for links to an unrelated website is an obvious clue that a stock image is a fake. But how else can you protect yourself when looking for legitimate images to use and credit? First of all, just be wary in general: since this new spamming and link farming technique has sprung up, popular sites like Flickr have been inundated with fake uploads, nearly all of them including free commercial use, free editing, and compulsory attribution in their licensing terms. Whenever you’re searching for something with those parameters, be extra careful.

Second, check the tags: in order to maximize visibility in search, spammers will tag these photos as broadly as possible. Hamza Butt sometimes includes more than 20 tags on photos for this reason. Now, there are plenty of legitimate photographers who do the same thing for the same reason, high visibility, so don’t take this one indicator as immediate proof of nefarious intent.

Third, download a copy of the photo and use a reverse image search tool, like Google Images or TinEye. If it shows up on a different site with a different photographer giving credit, and especially if that version of the photo is significantly older and has different terms, you’ve probably found a fake. Look around for the oldest copy you can: if any one of them includes terms that don’t allow re-use or restrict corporate use or editing, it’s probably safest just to look for a different image.

Let’s try another one of “Hamza’s” images for example. This image of a man doing a pushup could be perfect for almost any general fitness page, and what do you know, it hits all of our alarms at once. It’s licensed for free corporate use and editing with attribution, it’s stuffed with general tags, and it begs users to credit a fake site for rowing machine reviews.

Downloading a copy of the photo and re-uploading it into Google Image search shows it’s being used on a lot of fitness sites like Nurse Buff and Minneapolis Running…and also on the free stock image site Pixabay, where it’s posted with the same terms and no attribution necessary. It’s also in an album with many similar photos using the same model, and it was uploaded more than a year before the Flickr version, making it much more likely that this is the original uploader. If you’re in any doubt, be sure to check out these tips on finding the original sources of images online.

When you’re looking for stock images, be aware of this new spamming technique. It’s getting harder and harder to spot the genuine article.

Image credit (a real one): Joey Pilgrim

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.