A message shared in local Facebook groups claims a hospitalized woman was "robbed, stabbed and left for dead,” asking users to share her photo so someone might identify her. But the image is from a 2016 report on a car accident -- and many of the posts morph into real estate advertisements once they receive enough likes and shares.

"UPDATE We urgently need assistance in identifying a young woman who was robbed, stabbed, and left for dead by the side of the road in Truro. She is currently in a coma, and the deputies are unable to identify her because she is missing her ID," says a December 23, 2023 Facebook post. "Let's bump this post so it may reach people who can be able to identify her."

The post includes a photo of an unconscious woman in a hospital bed beside a ventilator.

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The claims have circulated in Facebook buy and sell groups across the United States and Canada. A screenshot also made its way to TikTok.

The posts all use the same photo and caption -- but each one differs slightly to include the name of the town matching the community group where it appeared.

Authorities in the US state of Virginia have refuted the rumors.

"Earlier this morning, this post started circulating throughout Augusta County. This is a fake post and is not true," the county sheriff's office said in a December 23 Facebook post (archived here).

A reverse image search found a newspaper in the state of Utah originally published the image in a May 26, 2016 article headlined: "Teen critically injured in crash remains in coma, improving little by little" (archived here).

"Taylor Carlton, 16, rests in a coma at Dixie Regional Medical Center after suffering injuries from a deadly car crash Sunday," The Spectrum and Daily News's caption says.

Deceptive ad tactic

The Facebook accounts behind the rumors have a few traits in common, including little or no previous activity and posts with closed comment sections -- making it difficult for people to warn users they are being misled.

The hoaxes appear to be aimed at boosting page engagement, as the text and photo are replaced with a real estate ad once the posts have enough likes and shares. Facebook's edit history feature shows the change.

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The ads promote a house available through a rent-to-own agreement. It is unclear whether the linked websites are legitimate, but the Federal Trade Commission warns consumers to be wary of such plans as they can "be risky -- and even flat-out scams" (archived here).

AFP previously investigated a similar Zimbabwe-based network of Facebook accounts that flooded yard sale and other community groups across the United States and Canada with false information.