Here's How to Spot Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Category: Reference

Did you know? MIT grad students are growing “bonsai kittens” in glass jars. AI-powered robots killed 29 Japanese scientists. And yikes... Russian hackers have infiltrated your Amazon account! Read on to find out how (and why) nonsense like this spreads like wildfire online...

Who You Gonna Call?

A few years back, there were emails circulating that Mister Rogers always wore a long-sleeved sweater to hide the tattoos he got as a Marine Corps sniper. No, the kindly Mr. Rogers wasn't a Marine or a sniper. None of these rumors are true, of course. They are examples of scams, hoaxes, and urban legends that circulate via email and social media. The Internet is awash with misinformation for a number of reasons.

Some hoaxsters are just having fun, like the originator of Mr. Rogers’ false bio. Others are doing it for likes, or upvotes, or other social media “currency” that boosts their online visibility. Have a look back at the best April Fools Pranks of 2024. Some are funny, some are weird, and some are just dumb, like 7-Eleven's hotdog-flavored sparkling water.

There is so much misinformation on the Internet that some people have made careers out of debunking it. Barbara and David Mikkelson launched Snopes in 1995; today the site gets over 300,000 visitors per day. (Be sure to check the Hot 50 to see some of most intriguing items currently making the online rounds.)

Urban legends and hoaxes online

Every time I mention Snopes, some readers comment about a perceived liberal bias there. I don't know if that's true, but it's good to have options. Check out Lead Stories, or Scambusters, another site that has tackled messages that can cost you money, such as “miracle cures,” “insider stock tips,” and even “virtual kidnappings.”

The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey started her column, “What Was Fake On The Interenet” in May, 2014; she gave it up in December, 2015, when science convinced her that people cling to their cherished untruths like barnacles to a ship’s hull. Ms. Dewey explains, in her farewell column, that many hoaxes are purposefully perpetrated to drive traffic to hoaxters’ Web sites. The types of hoaxes reveal the mindsets of the people who are most likely to believe and share them.

Unintended Consequences...

One of the most famous cases of a real person's story that morphed into an urban legend involved Craig Shergold. In 1989, Craig was a 10 year old boy hospitalized with a brain tumor. A family friend began a campaign to get him into the Guiness Book of Records for receiving the most post cards, and before long it started spreading by email. Cards began to pour in by the MILLIONS, year after year. Even though Craig was cured in 1991 and his family made public appeals for the cards to stop, their pleas were no match for the power and longevity of the email chain letter. The Craig Shergold chain letter morphed and spawned a wave of bogus "sick child" emails that have caused untold grief to other families who were the targets of pranksters, as well as financial harm to charities such as the Make A Wish Foundation.

The people who forward, repost and retweet these stories without engaging a single brain cell are a marketer’s dream. They’ll believe anything that sounds outrageous, tugs on the heartstrings, or confirms their prejudices. And once they find a source of confirmation, they’ll keep coming back for more. Needless to say, it isn’t hard to sell just about anything to such an audience.

The Love of Money...

Have you received a text or email claming that a large purchase was just made on your Amazon account? These messages come with a link to "verify the purchase" or "secure your account" but they are of course scams. Login directly to your Amazon account (if you have one), click to view your recent orders, and you'll see no sign of south-of-the-border hackery.

The "overpayment scam" comes into play when you put an item up for sale online, and the buyer "accidentally" sends you a check for 1000 dollars instead of 10. "Just a simple typo," they claim, and ask you to kindly send them a check for $990 to refund the overpayment. But by the time you learn that the $1000 check was bogus, the scammers have already cashed yours. The numbers will vary, but the gist of the scam is the same. Watch out for this type of scam on Craigslist or other online marketplaces where buyers and sellers deal directly.

I regularly get phone calls originating from Jamaica, informing me that I won a multi-million dollar lottery, and a new Mercedes Benz. Of course, there's a fee for shipping, taxes, insurance, and customs processing, so would I kindly provide my banking details? "No thanks," I tell the caller. "I won last month, and I don't have room for another Mercedes in my garage." Click. The tipoff for these calls is the 876 area code, but the bottom line is that you should never send money to claim a prize of any sort.

Scammers are also targeting older folks with phone calls, claiming that their online bank account was hacked. They'll provide instructions to download a program or mobile app to secure the account. Just hang up and call your bank if you have any doubts about the security of your financial accounts.

Some scams start with a phone call where the caller identifies as an officer of the court, local police, or district attorney’s office. They claim that you have unpaid traffic fines, or failed to report for jury duty, and a warrant has been issued for your arrest. The scammers then tell you they can clear your record if you pay a fine. They'll ask you to get a prepaid credit card for the amount of the fine, verify the card account number and pin, and send it by mail to the court. The scammers then drain the funds from the card before it arrives by mail. Remember, no government agency accepts payment via gift card or prepaid card.

Of course, there’s also money to be made by debunking hoaxes. There are many debunking websites in addition to those mentioned above. UrbanLegendsOnline, Truth or Fiction, Museum of Hoaxes, and other sites promise to set your cranky uncle straight. But the people who believe these stories don’t go searching for proof they’re wrong, and the rest of us are starting to give up on the believers.

Google has announced a crackdown on fake news websites, cutting them off from the advertising programs that make it profitable for them to continue. Facebook has rolled out tools that make it easier to report hoaxes and fake news. I've long wished that Internet service providers or those who operate webmail services would implement some sort of filter on outgoing or incoming email. Gmail and others warn about potential malware and phishing attempts. Why can't they show a warning when a well-known hoax, fake news story, or urban legend is about to be sent or received?

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Here's How to Spot Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends"

Posted by:

01 Jul 2024

In reference to your phone calls from Jamaica, I don't answer the phone if I don't recognize the name or number (or if I do, and don't want to answer). If I am curious, I will google it. If the call is important, the caller will leave a message and I can get back to them. In almost every case, the number is a bot and/or a political request. For emails, if from an unknown source I just delete. If they "seem" legit, I will look at the source to determine what to do with it. It is amazing how many come from .ru or .cn.

Posted by:

01 Jul 2024

I bet a lot of these scams come through social media web sites.if that is the case,I would or any smart guy would delete these or ignore them.I do not have a social media account,so I don't have to worry about such nonsense.Thanks Bob for the message today.

Posted by:

01 Jul 2024

I learned from my aunt and uncle back in the 70's. They had an answering machine. If you didn't try to leave a message, they would not answer the phone. Cut out a lot of unnecessary calls. Thanks, this was a good post!!

Posted by:

01 Jul 2024

It's a hard lesson to learn: "Fraudsters Lie." Nothing ... *NOTHING*! ... they say over the phone can be accepted as truth.

I advise seniors at our Senior Center. "But they said ... " is a common response. THEY LIE!

My wife got taken in last week, these fraudsters are very good at what they do. They try to steal you blind. Why, "Because that's where the money is."

Posted by:

Erik S
02 Jul 2024


That is the first question you should ask, verbally or by return SMS, to any good or, alternatively, melodramatic news you receive (by phone or in writing) from the police, from a foreign country, or from a friend or "your own" son/daughter allegedly in financial trouble.
Extra questions:
What is my (or your) mother's/sister's name or my or her address?

(I wrote a long article about this for a Danish newspaper last Christmas)

2) Be prepared to take photos
And see how they react
(This concerns scammers at your front door)

3) If you are shy about confrontation,
give someone else the blame
PLUS: from this day on, one of your close
family members is on the police force:
"Ever since my son/brother/husband joined the FBI,
he has become such a skeptic, and I have had to promise him that I would not respond without getting a photo of or more information from you. It is such a pain, but I did make the promise!"

Posted by:

02 Jul 2024

"Gmail and others warn about potential malware and phishing attempts. Why can't they show a warning when a well-known hoax, fake news story, or urban legend is about to be sent or received?"

Now that Google has added AI to their Gmail service, perhaps it can be programmed to scan emails for known hoaxes and urban legends.

Posted by:

05 Jul 2024

In this day and age, I continue to be amazed at the number of people who continue to fall for these scams and, in the worst cases, lose large amounts of money to the scammers. Why on earth would the local electric company tell you to drive down to CVS and buy a load of gift cards to pay your bill? The police are are their way to arrest you because you failed to show up for jury duty? Some lawyer needs you to send him a huge amount of money to get your grandson out of jail in a town you never heard of before? Your bank, who you've done business with for years, needs you to withdraw a large amount of money to help them catch a crooked employee? And on and on. I'm trying not to blame victims here, but have we lost our ability to use some common sense?

Posted by:

05 Jul 2024

The old saying "A fool and his money is soon parted". The real question is how they ever got together.

I go along with not answering the phone when I don't know the number. If it is important they will leave a message. Don't open any emails I do not know. Report any unsolicited text as spam.

My mother in law got a check to pay the fees on a Canadian lottery she won a few years back. It was a real looking check drawn on a bank in Ohio with a routing number for a San Francisco bank. All designed to delay the check being returned, so that after the normal time for a check to clear, she would write a check to them. Since this came in the US mail I called the postal inspector to file a complaint, left a message. Never got a call back from the inspector. That is why these people continue to do these scams. NO ONE cares. And no she didn't write them a check.

Posted by:

09 Jul 2024

I never cease to be amazed at the type of nonsense out there. All of the stupid conspiracy theories and even flat Earth junk exists out there. There is even a site of for Age of Truth, which has really loaded bullshit! ... and they call that TRUTH? Truly amazing! Thank you for the informative article!

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