NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, May 2008
Stop Forwarding Internet Hoaxes and Urban Legends
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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For several years, both in this column and on my weekly radio show, I have railed against well intentioned but blissfully ignorant internet users who cannot resist forwarding to everyone they know the latest in internet hoaxes and urban legends. Sometimes, more often than I would like to admit, senders of hoaxes get angry with me when I reply back to them that the email that they have just sent to everyone in their address books is a hoax or urban legend. These forwarders of exaggerations or outright lies occasionally get angry at me, and tell me that I don’t know what I am talking about, because the person who sent the original email to them to forward is too smart to forward internet hoaxes. Every day I receive several of these emails, often duplicates, which tie up precious internet bandwidth, and deprive me of my valuable time when I feel obligated to document and inform the sender of the inaccuracies of their post.

In recent days, from a variety of intelligent and well educated, I have received some very interesting hoaxes and urban legends. One, which I have received several times in the past few days, regards the unfortunate Polish toddler seriously burned in an accident, and in the hospital. By simply forwarding the email to everyone in your address book, some benefactor will contribute three cents for every recipient of the forwarded email; the revenue thus generated going to help pay the medical expenses of this poor, unfortunate little girl. This email included a touching photo of the seriously burned 14 month old girl in obvious pain, and was followed by a bible verse (Luke 6:38) praising those who help. The email tugs at the heartstrings when it says, “Alexandra came out of a rigging fire alive, but now has to fight for her life… She is 14 months old and she has burnt skin all over her body, damaged facial bones (as a result of very high temperature). She does not have half of her face. She is in a hospital in Cracow - Poland and one of the best specialists is looking after her. However she still has to go through many surgeries and then long rehab. Unfortunately her parents do not have any more money. Therefore we are asking for your help. For each forwarded email her parents will get 3 cents. Please help them and forward this email to as many people as you can.” While the toddler was really severely burned, there are two “dead giveaways” that would immediately indicate that this appeal is at least in part an internet hoax; first, there is no such thing as tracking a number of emails forwarded in order to arrive at a contribution; second, is the “…forward this email to as many people as you can” statement, a common indicator of an urban legend. (http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/medical/kuczma.asp). In addition to tying up bandwidth, this particular email may be a minor security risk in that the people who forwarded it simply hit the ”Forward” button, and included the list of prior recipients, indicating that this exact email had nine sets of headers consisting of several hundred real email addresses that spammers would just love to have.

Another frightening email actually came from a Texas police officer with the title “Criminal Intelligence Officer” with a police department, who in turn forwarded an email from a small agency police chief! This officer direly warned, “Information just received is that the gang MS-13 is currently initiating new gang members and an incident has already occurred. Please share with your staff. The initiation is as follows: Several gang members are in a car and do a slow moving tap (accident bump) to your car. As you get out to investigate, they shoot you. This is NOT a joke. If you are involved in a minor accident I strongly recommend you go to a well populated area or lit area if at night and call the police. If any additional information is put out I will share it with you.” Other variations of this admonition actually cite local roads and cities in order to enhance their credibility. One version even cites a first hand account at a named local shopping center. I promptly replied back to the “Criminal Intelligence Officer” and to the police chief that this was a well documented urban legend, and attached a link, http://www.snopes.com/crime/gangs/carbump.asp. Rightfully, both parties sent out a follow-up email retracting the bogus warning. Emailed warnings such as this can unjustifiably spread fear among the populace.

A prominent local paramedic forwarded the following dire warning, which he had received from someone working for a local private ambulance company: “Warning: Look at the gas pump handle BEFORE you pump your gas. Please read and forward to anyone you know who drives a car. My name is Captain A. S. of the Jacksonville, Florida, Police Department. I have been asked by state and local authorities to write this email in order to get the word out to car drivers of a very dangerous prank that is occurring in numerous states. Some person or persons have been affixing hypodermic needles to the under side of gas pump handles! These needles appear to be infected with HIV positive blood. In the Jacksonville area alone, there have been 17 cases of people being stuck by these needles over the past five (5) months. We have verified reports of at least 12 others in various states around the country. It is believed that these may be copycat incidents due to someone reading about the crimes or seeing them reported on television. Shockingly, of the 17 people who where stuck, 8 have tested HIV positive and because of the nature of the disease, the others could test positive in a couple years. Evidently the consumers go to fill their car with gas, and when picking up the pump handle get stuck with the infected needle. IT IS IMPERATIVE TO CAREFULLY CHECK THE HANDLE of the gas pump each time you use one. LOOK AT EVERY SURFACE YOUR HAND MAY TOUCH, INCLUDING U UNDER THE HANDLE! If you do find a needle affixed to one, immediately contact your local police department so they can collect the evidence. PLEASE HELP US BY MAINTAINING A VIGILANCE, AND BY FORWARDING THIS EMAIL TO ANYONE YOU KNOW WHO DRIVES”.

While citing alleged incidents to make this warning believable, this is an internet hoax that has been in circulation for about eight years, according to the urban legend tracking site Snopes (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/mayhem/gaspump.asp). According to Snopes, the alleged police captain who started this email hoax, has been connected with police agencies all over the US and Canada, and there is no one with that name in the Jacksonville PD. Another nearly identical warning puts the AIDS infected needles in theater seats, pay phone coin slots, or a variety of other locations. As well as spreading unjustified fear and mistrust, hoaxes like these can indeed spur copycats to perform the acts warned about in a type of self fulfilling prophecy. Rightly or wrongly, I feel compelled to notify the sender of such hoaxes and urban legends despite any animosity that can be created. The primary source I use is the aforementioned Snopes (http://www.snopes.com), which has an excellent reputation for its accuracy and documentation either confirming that a mass disseminated email is either true or false, and cites the reasons for its findings. While Snopes is my primary resource to debunk these emails, I often corroborate the findings with information from another popular website at urbanlegends.about.com. Both have a search box which makes it quick and easy to determine the veracity of the information by using a few key words in the email.

Please stop wasting the time and bandwidth of your email recipients, and check out the accuracy of any email which warns of some malevolent threat, and encourages you to forward the message to everyone that you know. A moment of research may save you from a lot of the embarrassment of being gullible. Look it up on Snopes or UrbanLegends before you forward it; if it is a hoax or urban legend, stop it in its tracks, and do not forward it, but instead reply to the sender that it is indeed a hoax.

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