Tall Tales and Hoaxes

© 2001 by Walt Howe
(last revised February 8, 2001)

A lot of the hoaxes that spread around the net are nothing more than tall tales or jokes. Most of them are pretty obvious, but occasionally they get taken seriously.

AOL and INTEL are merging and Microsoft will pay you to spread the word. This one claims that Microsoft will pay you over $200 for every person you notify by e-mail of the merger. It further claims that Microsoft can track the mail you send and will automatically send you the money. This is pretty far fetched, and it's hard to see how anyone could believe it, but some people figure it could be true and what could they lose by spreading it. Similarly, the RH Tracker company has rented an e-mail tracker and will pay you to help them find out how many people e-mail can reach. This is just the latest in a series of "pay for e-mail" hoaxes. None of them are true.

Infected bananas. A recent and rather realistic sounding hoax reports bananas infected by the horrid necrotizing fascitis and warns everyone to avoid bananas for the next three weeks. The report purports to be from the UC Riverside College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. It lists real names and phone numbers at the College. It is a total fabrication, and the College denies it and asks everyone not to spread it.

The Deadly Blush Spider Under the Toilet Seat. According to this story now making the rounds, a number of people died after visiting a restaurant near Chicago's Blare (!) Airport. It was traced to the deadly blush spider (a name for varicose veins, not spiders) which had taken up residence under the toilet seat in the rest room. It was verified by the nonexistent Journal of the United Medical Association (JUMA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (abolished in 1984).

Drug needles in coin return slots or theater seats or gas pumps. Making the rounds actively now is the tale that drug users are getting their kicks by putting their used needles in telephone or vending machine coin return slots, putting everyone at risk of AIDS or hepatitis who checks for change. Another variation has it taped to gas pump handles. The warning is coming from a personal friend of a friend who was warned by an EMT conducting classes or who posted it on a company bulletin board. It sounds vaguely plausible until you investigate the story. There is never any documentation of it actually happening. And the EMT is variously described as working for GE or the phone company or the federal government. The warning started in Seattle or NYC or Washington, DC. An older variation of the story has drug users leaving their needles on theatre seats or even injecting theatre-goers. The inconsistencies are typical of net hoaxes, where those spreading the tale personalize it to give it more credibility. Perhaps this one was started by soneone who opposed government issue of sterile needles to drug users. Don't spread this one, and if you receive it, straighten out the person who sent it to you.

Cars with Headlights Off are Murderous Gang Members. A hoax initiated in 1993 and thoroughly debunked then is going around again. It seems that new gang members must pass an initiation ritual by driving their car around with the headlights off. The first person who blinks their lights at them must be chased and shot at to pass the initiation. See the Urban Legends Reference Pages for documentation on this one.

Internet Clean-Up Day. On the lighter side, one of the most persistent tales through the years is annual Internet Clean-Up Day, usually on April 1st. According to the legend, once a year, all servers and terminals are shut down for a day while all stray files and data are cleaned out of the nets. Recipients of the notice are asked to shut down for that day so that they won't lose any data. One variation even asks people to cover their computers, modems, and phones with cloth or paper bags so that dirt won't spread around when they blow the lines clean. It's a good gag for newbies, and no one reading this would ever be taken in by it--or would they?

The PluPerfect Virus. Washington Post columnist Bob Hirschfeld created a very funny gag on May 2, 1999 called the Pluperfect Virus or the Strunkenwhite Virus. This one supposedly would block all e-mail with grammatical or spelling errors in it, and it therefore had the potential to destroy the Internet.

Stolen Kidneys. Another common legend is the guy who wakes up after a heavy night on the town in a bathtub filled with ice. There is a cellular phone alongside and a note telling him to dial 911 for help immediately. As he takes inventory of himself, he discovers there is a major incision on his backside. He had, according to the legend, one or both of his kidneys stolen. There is no truth to this legend. Donor kidneys are tracked very carefully, and there is no black market for kidneys.

Lovers Lane Killer. Another legend that typically pops up around Halloween time is the couple who go parking in the local Lovers' Lane. As they snuggle together, they hear a report on the car radio that a Lover's Lane killer is active in the area. They don't know who he is, but he has a hook where his hand used to be, and he loves to sneak up and torture his victims with the hook. Scared by the report, they start up the car and drive home at high speed. Only when they stop the car do they discover the bloody hook affixed to the car door handle! Don't worry! This story is only true when Halloween occurs on Friday the 13th! Any other Halloween, you just have to worry about guys in hockey masks.

The $250 Cookie Recipe. Another Urban Legend is the tale of the $250 Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe, sometimes told about Mrs Fields or other cookie makers instead. As the story goes, the teller bought some wonderful cookies at Neiman-Marcus. He was so impressed that he called the company to ask if the recipe was for sale. The response over the phone was, "Yes, and we will sell it to you for two-fifty." Thinking that quite fair, the caller instructed them to put it on his credit card. To his horror, the next month's bill arrived with a charge for $250, not $2.50 as the caller assumed. Therefore, the storyteller is putting the recipe on the Internet and encouraging everyone to pass it along so no one else will get caught by the outrageous charge. It makes a good story, but it never happened. Neiman-Marcus doesn't sell cookies or recipes. Perhaps that is why the story has migrated to Mrs Fields and other cookie makers.

Viruses by E-mail. The non-existent Klingerman Foundation is not mailing out deadly viruses in blue envelopes.

Kurt Vonnegut Commencement Speech. A recent urban legend is that Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech to the 1997 graduating class at MIT, advising them to wear sunscreen. The sunscreen tale was actually written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, but the MIT/Vonnegut version made the newswires, and was often reported as fact. It is worth reading, but it was not written by Kurt Vonnegut.

Bill Gates Stories. There are a number of tall tales told about Bill Gates. Most recently, many newspapers credited him with writing 11 rules for high school students, including "Be nice to nerds." He didn't write them; humorist Charlies Sykes did. In various other stories, he has bought the Catholic Church and the Vatican, he has bought the US Government, and so on. These are pretty obviously jokes, but what about the chain letter going around that Microsoft and Gates are testing a new e-mail system, and everyone who participates by following the instructions in the letter will receive $1000 for their help when the test is over? A lot of people have passed that one along, just in case. Microsoft denies it.

GAP Giveaway. Similarly, the GAP is not giving away free clothes when you spread the word about a new order tracking system.

Gerber Baby Foods Paying Off. Gerber Baby Foods is not distributing $500 savings bonds or any other amount to every child under 12 in settlement of a false advertising suit. But this rumor keeps making the rounds anyway. Gerber offers a possible explanation of the origin of this legend on their web site.

Shampoos Cause Cancer. A chain letter is going around warning about shampoos containing the foaming agent sodium laureth sulfate, claimed to be a carcinogen. Its pseudo-scientific text claims that cancer rates have increased from 1 in 8000 to 1 in 3 in 10 years, which is not true, and it refers to stopping the nonexistent "cancer virus". It concludes with the usual entreaty to tell everyone. The letter was apparently started by a multi-level marketing company, warning people away from commercial shampoos, to help them sell their "safe" shampoos.

Anti-Perspirants Cause Cancer. Similar to the shampoo scare, a chain letter is going around urging women to avoid anti-perspirants, because they cause cancer. It is full of pseudo-science that is easily refuted, and there is no research to support a relationahip. let alone, cause-and-effect. Not surprisingly, the primary web sites posting it are those that sell organic deodorants, and those that see a conspiracy in everything.

AOL Riots. Reports of an AOL riot and virus infection due to occur on June 1, 2001--or is it May 1, 2001?--are a hoax, too. This one pops up every year.

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