How to Spot Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends

Category: Reference

Did you know? Mister Rogers always wore a long-sleeved sweater to hide the tattoos he got as a Marine Corps sniper. AI-powered robots killed 29 Japanese scientists. And yikes... 40 Mexican 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?

"What... Mr. Rogers wasn't a Marine sniper? Oh, he was a Navy SEAL?" None of these statements is 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 2022. Some are funny, some are weird, and some are just dumb, like the dating site that puts prospective couples on matching bidets.

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. Scambusters is 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.

Of course, there’s also money to be made by debunking hoaxes. There are many debunking websites in addition to those mentioned above., and dozens more 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 "How to Spot Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends"

Posted by:

John Robertson
17 Oct 2022

The internet service providers like Google, Facebook, etc. have abused the identification and control of scammers by calling articles that are not of their political persuasion fake news, scammers, etc. to the point that all service providers have become suspect and many legitimate articles have been banned.

Posted by:

17 Oct 2022

I am currently battling with my grandfather over a ponzi / pyramid scheme involving crypto. They have convinced him he can 3x his money in just 600 days. This first scam started in April 2021 but we found out about it too late. Now that the first one has gone belly up, they've convinced him to get in on this new on "at the top". Thankfully I found out about the new one by chance. I tried to explain and show where these are scams and not to send them money, but he wouldn't listen to me. So now I'm using my tech abilities to try and battle it. I got access to his email and One Drive accounts where I was able to get into this crypto site, change the email, password, and enable 2FA. That just happened yesterday, so we'll see where it goes from here.

Posted by:

Ralph Sproxton
17 Oct 2022

I get 15 or 20 phishing scams a day. I like the ones that start, "Dear costumer:" ...

Posted by:

Bill C
17 Oct 2022

I've always wondered why Fakebook continues to allow scam ads on their site. With all the surveillence (sp?) they do to everyday folks who post the the 'wrong' political comments; how is it I can still buy an electric motorcycle for $39.95 for "TODAY ONLY !!" ? Are they making too much money to care?

Posted by:

17 Oct 2022

This is similar to the one you sent in April can't see this too many times!

Posted by:

17 Oct 2022

"Just hang up and call your bank if you have any doubts about the security of your financial accounts."

Sure, I'll call the bank, listen to their recorded messages, push several keys in their various menus, and, maybe, after 45 minutes or longer, actually speak to somebody in asia who has an accent that cannot be understood.

Posted by:

Ralph C
17 Oct 2022

I love the phone calls from Microsoft that tell me that MS has seen a virus and should give them access to my computer. I ask them what version of Windows I an using and they don’t know, BUT I must give them access to my computer!. I try to keep them talking as long as possible then tell them that I am actually using a Mac Book….Click, they hang up!

Posted by:

18 Oct 2022

I don't think I'll ever be able to use my PayPal account again...sigh.

Posted by:

Stukahna Sandbahr
18 Oct 2022

Hey Rad- go with a credit union. Better service, rates, and you won't be supporting ESG.

Posted by:

Nick Soapdisch
18 Oct 2022

And then there are those fake ransomware spam emails that threaten to release "embarrassing photos" that were taken via the built-in camera in the recipient's laptop.

Some people actually fall for this ruse and wire money to keep their (non existent) pictures from being circulated to their associates.

Since I don't own a laptop or use Windoze these extortion attempts are slightly amusing.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
18 Oct 2022

Years ago, I used several fact-check websites to debunk many of these fake-news posts I see on social media. Now, I avoid all that work by employing skepticism. If the source is a political figure, anything that (s)he says is immediately suspect. If something seems to be too good to be true, (I just won a car, million dollars, etc.) it's not.

If I get a warning that my computer's infected, I run a full system scan with Microsoft Defender, then with Malwarebytes, then with Microsoft Defender's off-line scanner. If these measures uncover nothing, and my computer is not misbehaving, I ignore that notice, regardless how convincing it seems (such notifications usually arise while I'm using my web browser).

I seldom repost the output of others on social media, and especially via email (why waste the bandwidth). When I learn about some new scam making the rounds, I post a warning on Facebook accompanied by a link to the source of my information. I never ask that readers repost.

In the 1950s when I was little, my mother worked very hard to teach me to not trust strangers. She succeeded. Today, I keep in mind that everything on the Internet is produced by strangers, so it is ALL suspect until the source demonstrates their benign intentions over time, and even then, I still remain skeptical about their content, and so should you, especially when you agree with what you see/read.



Posted by:

Stanley J. Solkomon
18 Oct 2022

I am 100% with your "How to Spot Scams, Hoaxes, Urban Legends". However, I find Gmail to randomly be overzeals with Email. My UBS bank statement and other clearly not SPAM Email occasionally get put in SPAM. Email classification is obviously a fine line task.

Posted by:

Bob Cole
18 Oct 2022

You really made my day with this particular post. Thanks so much.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2022

Some people are just too credulous. They apparently believe everything they read (and maybe hear). I have friends on FB who are like that and you just have to correct them every time. The ones I don't understand are the telephone crooks who keep calling even when I hang up on them every time. Why bother pursuing people who aren't going to fall for your spiel?

Posted by:

02 Nov 2022

My favorite was a scam call saying it was my bank on Saturday night at 11pm...Don't think so, the bank does not call people then. My other favorite call was "Your iphone(etc) account has been hacked" No it has not, because I do not have such an account.

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