Urban Legends and Hoaxes

Category: Email

Is the government or AOL planning to implement an email tax? Does your lipstick contain dangerous levels of lead? Will Microsoft send you money for forwarding an email? Do you need to add your cell phone number to a Do Not Call directory? Should you boycott Pepsi because their new cans are offensive?

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There Must Be 50 Ways to Say...

No, Nyet, Nein, Non, and Nope! All of the above are FALSE. Some of these rumors, urban legends and hoaxes may have a ring of truth, but they are all bogus.

In some cases, rumors are started by well-meaning people who just got the facts bass ackwards. Others are malicious -- created to intentionally mislead the public, damage the reputation of a company, or to attack an individual.

The Dying Child Hoax

One of the most famous cases of a well-intentioned email blitz 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.

A Knee "Jerk" Reaction?

I've devoted considerable time and effort over the last 15 years to educating people about hoaxes and urban legends. But it seems that a majority of people are willing to believe almost ANYTHING they read in an email, and blindly forward it en masse, without bothering to check out the validity of the claims being made.

In some cases the sheer lack of logic on the part of the knee-jerk reactionaries is stunning. A widely circulated rumor a few years ago claimed that 23 people had been attacked by the Klingerman Virus, transmitted in a blue envelope that arrives in your postal mailbox. If something like that was REALLY happening across the country, do you think you'd be learning about in an email? Wouldn't the news be trumpeted from every radio, television, and newspaper headline? But still, millions of people heeded the warning to "PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO EVERYONE YOU CARE ABOUT" without engaging a single brain cell.

So before you forward ANYTHING... think first, then verify. Visit a news website, use a search engine, or check it out at one of the urban legend verification websites. I always point people to Snopes because they are professional journalists and do an excellent job of researching each rumor.

Other good places to validate or debunk rumors and urban legends are the Urban Legends and Folklore pages at About.com and the Urban Legends and Hoaxes Resource Center from the folks at Scambusters.

Got comments, questions, or a heated argument? :-) Post your thoughts below.

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Most recent comments on "Urban Legends and Hoaxes"

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

Good luck in this neverending battle! I am a self confessed legend killer myself... one day we will have a generation of users around the world where the majority of them are educated in this regard... one day ;-)

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

Bob--recently my nephew told me that "snopes" occassionally verifies as true a false rumor with the caveat that "it keeps us on our toes". Have you ever heard that they do that? I just found their site and was glad to have found a "reality check" place to go to---then his comment knocked my edge off. Appreicate your comments. Thanks, and like yor letter!!! Paul

EDITOR'S NOTE: That sounds ridiculous to me... it would destroy their credibility entirely. I've used Snopes a lot for many years, and I've never seen anything like that. Sounds like another urban legend for Snopes to debunk!

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

Gee, and my best friends friend SWORE that this stuff was true! My husband and myself are dedicated mythbusters, alot are forwarded by friends who ought to know better than to send them to us lol. And Daniel is dreaming ;-)

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

Thanks Bob! -- I get one of these hoaxes about once a week or so. Sometimes when I point out its a hoax, the sender is offended. Two this week were fake virus warnings and both were from people I had already explained about this to. Ah well... Keep up the good work - this may help...

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

Some of these hoax emails are so laughable that I wonder why people are so stupid to believe them. I have had these emails forwarded to me by well educated professionals. I usually return the email with a note saying Google it before sending it to me. Oh! For the life of a hoax and spam free inbox.

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

My personal favorite is http://www.truthorfiction.com

People who send you unsolicited email are called spammers. People who try to get personal and private information from you are call phishers. What term do we apply to the people who send us false urban legends? (be nice)

Thanks for the service you provide. I have recieved insight and understanding on many subjects in my computer education from you.

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

I am a librarian and I never cease wondering why so many people, university education notwithstanding, have such an urge to believe the strangest things, which upon closer investigation are simply fiction, fantasy, or right out lies. Some persons get really angry with me when I point them to critical sites, like the ones you mention, instead of feeding their illusions. I warmly recommend this site:


Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

I believe the same holds true for religious articles, prayers, poems, words of wisdom etc. I refuse to be "guilted" into "PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW OR CARE ABOUT" in the name of religion. Religion is a very personal issue and to lay a guilt trip on someone for not forwarding the tenth prayer you've received for the day is ludicrous. This is not "What Jesus would do!"

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

You don't mention breakthechain.org. This is sometimes better than all others, almost as good as snopes has become!

Posted by:

01 Mar 2006

Like many of you who have commented, I too am a self professed hoax killer. I have 5 (now 6...thanks for The Skeptics Dictionary site) sites I check out before sending stuff on. I will usually reply back to a sender with at least 2 links concerning the validity of an e-mail. I have yet to have anyone get angry with me for this. The problem I have is the same people send me stuff without checking them out first. How do we get people to check before sending?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm convinced we need some kind of electro-shock feedback mechanism that will deliver a high voltage "correction" when someone forwards a silly email. If the shock gets stronger each time, eventually the user will be conditioned to behave, or... disappear into a pile of ash. :-)

Posted by:

02 Mar 2006

I have a question. Correct me if I'm wrong. I think I read somewhere that these type of forwards that say "send this to at least five friends so you'll be blessed" blah, blah, blah, are used by spammers so they can acquire your email addresses and use them as in sell them to scam artists. Is this true? Is it even possible?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, it's possible. I'm sure you've seen "forwards" with page after page of email addresses before you find the actual message. If you fail to trim all those "From" lines when forwarding a message, it's not only inconsiderate, you also reveal all of those addresses to everyone that it's forwarded to.

Posted by:

02 Mar 2006

My friends and my husband often refer to me as the "fact check queen", because I never let any myth go undebunked! It's getting to the point where I can no longer resist throwing a bit of my own opinion in, along with the facts, when I return those notes to the sender. I even coined my own term for all those forwarded e-mails I get from friends and relatives - "friendspam".

EDITOR'S NOTE: Good one, thanks!

Posted by:

05 Mar 2006

I am an administrator of another site for stopping hoaxes. Hoax-Slayer owned by Brett Christensen. Brett puts out a monthly news letter and we have forums set up for users to comment and ask questions. Keep up the fight!

Posted by:

Meyeer Levadie
07 Dec 2006


This URL was provided as a return "address" for approvalto send survey materials. Subject line was "your check is waiting for you." Any comments?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes... I sure hope you deleted that message!

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