The urgent e-mails usually come with a warning: "Beware, this is a true story. " Then the story unfolds: A woman gets into her car in a...
ATLANTA — The urgent e-mails usually come with a warning: “Beware, this is a true story.”
Then the story unfolds: A woman gets into her car in a parking lot, starts the engine and shifts into reverse.
She notices a piece of paper, some sort of advertisement, stuck to the rear window and blocking her view. She shifts into park and gets out to remove the leaflet, leaving the engine running. As she walks to the rear of the car, carjackers appear. They jump into the car and speed away with her purse, keys and identification.
At the end of the message, Detective Bledsoe of the Florissant, Mo., sheriff’s office and Lt. Tony Bartholome of the Missouri Highway Patrol confirm that the incident happened in St. Louis County and urge motorists to take precautions, particularly around the holidays. It also gives an address and a telephone number for more information.
But as it turns out, it is entirely made up.
Urban legends — those weird stories that seem to take on lives of their own as they travel from person to person — have likely been around for centuries. But in the past decade, the Internet has added a new, more encompassing dimension to the spread of false rumors.
Five of the most highly e-mailed urban legends. All have been proved false by Snopes.com.
Claim: Internet users can receive at least $10,000 for forwarding messages to test a Microsoft/AOL e-mail tracking system.
Status: This is a version of an Internet hoax that has been around since 1997. Periodically, the name of the companies or the amount of the reward changes.
Claim: A plea to help find 9-year-old Penny Brown who has been missing for two weeks.
Status: The e-mail, which includes a picture of a smiling little girl, has been circulated since 2001.
Claim: A woman was robbed at a Wal-Mart store in Garland, Texas, by a thief who injected her with an unknown substance that left her clinging to life.
Status: Police said no such attack occurred. According to news reports, the author of the e-mail said a friend told him the tale and he believed he was doing a good deed by spreading the story online.
Claim: A neighbor’s German shepherd died after walking on a floor that had been cleaned with a Proctor & Gamble Swiffer WetJet mop.
Status: On the Swiffer WetJet Web site, the company explains that the mop contains no antifreeze as reported in the e-mail, and that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, veterinarians and scientists confirm that it is safe for pets.
Claim: Photos showing what is said to be the interior of golfer Tiger Woods’ beachfront home.
Status: Tiger Woods does not own this property. The pictures are of a rental estate in Hawaii.
Fictitious e-mails designed to warn, generate laughter, inspire or sometimes solicit money pour into computer in-boxes every day.
Despite software designed to filter unsolicited e-mail, most people have yet to figure out an effective way to rid their computers of spam. They can add to the dozens of e-mails from people they know who spend hours, often with good intentions, sending out poems, prayers, chain letters and stories of schemes and lurking dangers.
Holidays busy time
According to those who monitor such e-mails, traffic picks up around the holidays with people sending warnings, such as the Missouri carjacking alert. Another busy time is around election season. The biggest jump, however, occurred after the 9/11 attacks.
Deborah Williams, owner of an Atlanta management-consulting company, said despite the filter on her computer, about 50 unsolicited e-mails get through daily.
“I hate it,” she said. she spends 15 to 45 minutes a day sorting through unwanted e-mails. “I can come back from an out-of-town trip and have 400 messages waiting, and only about 30 are relevant.”
For more than two years, variations of the carjacking e-mail have made the rounds, landing a spot among the top 15 urban legends on the Internet, according to Snopes.com, a Web site dedicated to sorting out whether a story is true or false.
Warnings targeting women are at a high point this year, said Barbara Mikkelson, who with her husband, David, has investigated more than 300 e-mail urban legends a year since starting Snopes.com in 1995.
“These e-mails are reflections of what we feel is happening in society, our fears and anxieties. It’s not that women are being abducted and raped more or that both sexes are becoming victims of violent crimes more, it is a way of expressing to our friends that here’s the stuff we are worried about,” Barbara Mikkelson said.
Bill Orvis, senior security specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability Team, which monitors Internet hoaxes, said most people make up the e-mails for fun.
“For some people, it’s just a prank. They want to know if they make up a cool story, how far it can go,” said Orvis, who maintains hoaxbusters.ciac.org, an Energy Department Web site.
The Florissant Police Department received so many inquiries about the alleged carjacking in its city that the chief issued a news release last summer dismissing the report.
“I want to put an end to this rumor. The City of Florissant has not had any incidents of this nature!” Police Chief William Karabas said in the news release.
Karabas said he has no idea how his department ended up in the e-mail. Experts, however, said that an officer sometimes innocently forwards an e-mail to friends and the police department becomes attached to it as the official source.
Orvis, who was hired by the Energy Department to monitor hackers and malicious code violators, said the department got into the hoax-busting business in 1995 after getting calls about questionable e-mails that were circulating. Rather than answering all the calls, the agency established a Web site where he publishes the truth about investigated e-mails.
While most of the e-mails are well-intentioned and harmless, Orvis said, some have been circulated for political reasons or as marketing ploys.
An e-mail was circulated among blacks last year warning their voting rights would expire in 2007 if Congress did not renew the Voting Rights Act. Voting rights are granted for all Americans under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, not the Voting Rights Act.
Businesses have had to engage in damage control to ward off false e-mails calling for boycotts against them, Orvis said.
In one case, Starbucks Coffee was falsely accused of refusing to send coffee to U.S. Marines in Iraq.
It was falsely reported in e-mails that designer Tommy Hilfiger was kicked off Oprah Winfrey’s show after saying his clothes were made for “upper-class white people.” The e-mail was so widely circulated that Winfrey debunked the rumor on her Web site.
“Sometimes these are started by competitors, but often when we get to the back end of the investigation, it tends to be someone who genuinely misunderstood or misheard the story,” said Barbara Mikkelson.
“The real magic is how it is transmitted. In each story, there is something that someone can identify with and that prompts them to want to pass it along.”